Frequent attacks on journalists and media outlets have seriously affected press freedom.
The government, and especially President Evo Morales, verbally attacked the press, journalists and media owners more and more frequently. These denunciations increased as the political, economic, social and regional situation, as well as the relationship between the government and its opponents, deteriorated in several departments, or provinces.
The government has made significant progress in its efforts to control news, especially in rural areas and prior to the referendums on autonomy from May 4 in Santa Cruz until June 22 in Tarija. Its aim, which was not achieved, was to prevent the people of the departments of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija from approving the autonomy laws. They had already approved autonomy for their departments in an earlier referendum.
The state television channel installed 20 transmitters to reach every corner of the country with advertising in favor of the government and against opposition governors before the August 10 vote to recall the president, vice president and governors. With these irregularities, the government in effect deprived TV Boliviana and the radio network Patria Nueva of their official character and put them at the service of the government party Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement Toward Socialism, or MAS).
It was decreed that the state television channel is to be run by a board of five cabinet ministers, presided by the Minister of the Presidency, eliminating representatives of civil society.
The earlier campaigns and those before the referendums intensified the attacks on the media and journalists. At first, government groups assaulted representatives of private media companies and repeatedly beat up independent journalists. Later radical opposition groups attacked state media companies and their journalists in various parts of the country.
The government’s charges against the press, which almost always cause its supporters to attack journalists and the media, stem from an apparent strategy of discrediting the press so it will not be believed. President Morales said in a speech that the press lies and, therefore, the people “do not have to believe it.” This is a frequent topic and has a strong effect on government supporters who mostly receive government information.
Press workers’ organizations held protest marches in Santa Cruz, Oruro and Chuquisaca to defend press freedom, and journalism institutions issued statements condemning the attacks.
The government resisted accepting criticism by the media and called the press its enemy. The independent press, meantime, ran editorials critical of statements by the president such as his comment that, “I don’t know if it is legal or illegal. I do it and later my lawyers work it out. That’s why they went to law school.”
In the Constituent Assembly the government majority arbitrarily decided to change the requirement for approval of articles in the draft constitution from two-thirds to an absolute majority. This contradicted the law convening the assembly. Newspapers criticized the assembly’s decisions and pro-government reports interpreted this as opposition to the government by the press. The press’s opposition to the approval of the constitution by the assembly was also described this way.
The same thing happened with the government’s decision to modify by decree the percentages of distribution of the hydrocarbons tax as established by law. Newspaper editorials urging that the law be respected and not overruled by decree was also interpreted by the government as the press supporting the opposition.
These two topics—the irregular approval of the draft constitution and the illegal distribution of hydrocarbon taxes—are the basis of the conflict between the government and five departments. They led to more violence during the first half of September, with an unknown number of deaths, injuries and disappearances in Pando, in the north of the country bordering Brazil.
Independent media outlets that had sent journalists to Cobija to cover the events of September 11, when the military occupied the airport during the state of siege, were censored. The military used deception to force the journalists to go back to where they had come from in a military airplane. Since then journalists have had to go to Brazil to get to Cobija. No journalist is allowed within 200 meters of the airport. Soldiers fired at those who tried to approach military commanders. Only government journalists have facilities to work in Pando.
During the violence, public institutions were taken over in Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija, roads were blocked and there were conflicts between pro- and anti-government groups affecting the media and journalists.
Carlos Quispe, a journalist, was brutally beaten on March 27 in Pucarani in the Bolivian highlands by peasants opposing the local mayor, who entered the offices of Radio Municipal de Pucarani. Quispe died two days later as a result of his injuries. The police and judicial authorities have done little to find the perpetrators.
Between then and September 19, at least one hundred journalists of private press, radio and television companies, were targeted for various types of attacks by military personnel or government and opposition sympathizers, according to statistics of the National Press Association (ANP). The most serious injuries occurred when Claudia Méndez of PAT television network was shot in the foot by a soldier as the military took over the Cobija airport in the capital of Pando on September 13, and the beating of Angel Farell, a photographer of the newspaper El Deber of Santa Cruz, also on September 13 in Tiquipaya. Pro-government farmers fighting youths from Santa Cruz with sticks beat Farell so badly that he had to pretend to be dead to save his life.
At least five journalists of government media, Televisión Boliviana and the radio network Patria Nueva, were beaten.
ANP statistics show that there were at least 43 attacks on private media companies between April and September of this year and nine against government media in several parts of the country.
In the area of self regulation, five journalistic institutions established the National Journalism Ethics Court made up of one former chief justice of the Supreme Court, a former chief judge of the national Constitutional Court and three journalists who had received the National Journalism Prize.
There is still the threat of the draft constitution which has been approved by the government. Article 108 says in paragraph II, “News and opinions published in the social communications media must respect the principles of truth and responsibility.” This is a violation of press freedom and of international agreements signed by the government.