Bogotá, June 16, 2020 – Bolivian authorities’ investigation into attacks on journalists from Unitel TV and El Deber should be thorough and transparent, and those responsible should be held to account, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On June 11, a crowd of about 50 protesters in the central Bolivian town of Entre Ríos attacked a group of three journalists from the outlets and their driver, while they were covering a demonstration against the town’s COVID-19 lockdown, according to reports from the Unitel TV broadcaster and El Deber newspaper.
Protesters kicked and punched Unitel TV reporter Rodolfo Orellana and his camera operator Joel Orellana, forced them to stop filming, and then destroyed their camera, according to the broadcaster’s report. Demonstrators also beat Iván Escobar, the journalists’ driver, according to the newspaper.
In an interview with her employer and in a telephone interview with CPJ, El Deber reporter Soledad Prado said the protesters threatened to burn the journalists alive.
The journalists took refuge inside their vehicle but were surrounded by the demonstrators, who rocked the car back and forth and cut its rear tires, Prado told CPJ. She said police intervened and escorted the journalists, none of whom was seriously injured, to safety in the nearby town of Yapacaní.
Franklin Villazón, chief of police in Yapacaní, said the attack was under investigation, according to news reports. On Twitter, Interior Minister Arturo Murillo described the incident as a “kidnapping” and vowed that the perpetrators would be held accountable.
“We commend Bolivian authorities’ steps to protect journalists from Unitel TV and El Deber when they came under attack in Entre Ríos, and to open an investigation into this worrisome incident,” said CPJ Central and South America Program Coordinator Natalie Southwick, in New York. “We urge the government to hold the attackers to account and send a message that journalists should be free to cover protests without fear that they will be assaulted or threatened.”
Prado told CPJ that the demonstrators accused the journalists of working for right-wing media outlets that had “sold-out” to the government. She said the protesters were supporters of former left-wing Bolivian President Evo Morales, who resigned under pressure last year and was replaced by interim President Jeanine Añez.
Entre Ríos has been the site of numerous demonstrations, including the blockage of highways, to protest the Añez government, according to Unitel TV’s report.
Raúl Peñaranda, a Bolivian press critic and editor of the Brújula Digital news website, told CPJ that people in Entre Ríos and nearby towns have harassed journalists for filming local residents violating the government’s COVID-19 lockdown by reopening their businesses or ignoring social distancing recommendations.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in Bolivia in March, there have been at least 10 attacks against journalists covering it, according to the independent La Paz newspaper Página Siete.