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Reporters' working conditions becoming increasingly difficult under Evo Morales

As Bolivia undergoes massive political changes, its media is also going through tumultuous times. Bolivia's unstable political situation, widespread civil unrest, and weak rule of law present serious long-term threats to journalists amid the broader perspective of human rights. Observers see Bolivia’s current situation as a make or break situation for the Bolivian media, who seem to be the scapegoat for the massive unrest brewing. Bolivia is all set for a referendum for its citizens in August 2007.

The country secured the top position in the Americas in the latest Reporters sans Frontières (RSF) worldwide press freedom index published in September 2006 owing to very few attacks on journalists. Shortly after, political instability and the faceoff between government supporters and opposing forces have threatened the lives of journalists. It is feared that it has widened the gap between state and privately-owned media, and increased the possibility of a ‘media war’. Any ‘media war’ it is felt can adversely damage the relationship between private and government owned media organisations.

Bolivia's President Evo Morales, left, looks at farmers moving vicunas in a corral during a visit to Ulla Ulla, a small village that recently exported 950 kilogrammes of vicuna wool, in Bolivia, Friday, June 8, 2007. Vicunas produce small amounts of extremely fine wool, which is very expensive because the animal can only be shorn every three years. (AP Photo/Dado Galdieri)

Journalists and media executives are accusing President Evo Morales, the country's first indigenous leader, of being too thin-skinned. Despite a relatively open press climate, Morales's intolerance of media criticism is making working conditions for reporters increasingly difficult, a delegation from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) found during a weeklong visit to Bolivia. Morales, while pledging to respect press freedom, accused the media of bias against his administration.

"The administration of President Morales believes that any criticism is part of a conspiracy. There is freedom of expression in Bolivia, but the President's constant verbal attacks are sending some worrying signals," Pedro Rivero Jordán, executive director with the Santa Cruz-based daily El Deber, and president of the Bolivian National Association of the Press, told CPJ.

"The capitalist system is using the media against the government," Morales has said. "Journalists sympathise with me but the media owners are aligned in a campaign against my government."

Evo Morales, a democrat who supports Cuban President Fidel Castro, publicly rebuked a TV journalist who called Castro a dictator after his inauguration in 2006. The former coca-growers’ leader is suspicious of the privately-owned media. His nationalisation of the country’s natural gas and oil resources and summoning of a constituent assembly (elected in August), in turn is fiercely opposed by the country’s oligarchy and right-wing parties that once held power.

The result has been a clash between the supporters of both sides. Two fire-bombs damaged the pro-government TV station Canal 7 on September 8, 2006 in the eastern city of Santa Cruz, the most vehement opposition stronghold. The government in turn did not spare the privately-owned media and the studios of the privately-owned TV station Unitel in La Paz were ransacked by government supporters on October 12.

In this photo released by the Presidency of Bolivia, Cuba's acting President Raul Castro, right, talks to Bolivia's President Evo Morales during a meeting in Havana, Thursday, June 7, 2007. Evo Morales, a democrat who supports Cuban President Fidel Castro, publicly rebuked a TV journalist who called Castro a dictator after his inauguration in 2006. (AP Photo/Noah Rudovsky)

It is widely recognised that the media is still weak in Bolivia compared, with that in its neighbouring countries and journalists seldom dare to tackle sensitive topics such as drugtrafficking and especially corruption. The current relatively calm period for the media may not last however due to the very volatile political situation. As it was seen when the media, both pro-government and opposition, was the first target of political score-settling in December 2006 when a constitutional crisis arose.

There has been a spate of attacks on journalists. Eleven Bolivian reporters, photographers, and camera operators covering violent demonstrators in the central city of Cochabamba were killed on January 10. On January 22, former minister of public works Salvador Ric assaulted camera operator Álvaro Suárez, of Canal 39 Full TV television station, during an interview in the politician's office in the city of Santa Cruz, eastern Bolivia.

According to a report by the International Press Institute (IPI), several existing laws hinder a free press in Bolivia. Criminal defamation laws, carrying prison sentences of up to three years, remain on the statute books. A statute requiring journalists to possess a university degree and to be listed with a National Registry before they can work also remains in effect. Journalists acknowledge that they are not persecuted by the authorities but they say that the constant barrage of criticism of the press makes covering events such as street protests difficult.

As Bolivian lawmakers begin the process of drafting a new constitution for the country, the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) has joined the National Press Association (ANP) in calling for strong guarantees of protection for free expression and press freedom rights. A strategy for the media to play a more constructive role, including advocating for changes in the law, creating "free speech" zones, strengthening the quality of journalism through training and peer evaluation, and better protecting journalists is also being suggested.

A farmer picks coca seeds to sell in Yungas, Bolivia, in this September 18, 2005, file photo. Morales, a former coca-growers’ leader, is suspicious of the privately-owned media. His nationalisation of the country’s natural gas and oil resources and summoning of a constituent assembly (elected in August), in turn is fiercely opposed by the country’s oligarchy and right-wing parties that once held power.(AP Photo/Dado Galdieri)

The Bolivian media, meanwhile, has expressed concern about the government's plans for the constituent assembly that is redrafting the constitution with the aim of strengthening indigenous rights. Vice-President García Linera said that the government had no plans "to impose coercive mechanisms to impose control" over the press. "The excesses in the use of information would not be controlled by the state. We respect and seek to promote freedom of expression," said Linera.

It has also been found that growing tensions among regional, ethnic and economic groups in Bolivia are being reflected in the media to the detriment of the country's unity. According to International Media Support (IMS), Bolivians are receiving “incomplete and distorted information” due to some media outlets aggressively purporting certain political interests and openly manipulating information. Combined with insufficient journalism training and a lack of a widely accepted ethical framework, this “crisis in journalism is impeding Bolivians’ understanding of strategic and sensitive topics in the development of their country,” the report says.

The CPJ delegation also met Gastón Núñez, the official who runs the administration's network of community radio stations, a project financed with a US$ 2-million investment from the Venezuelan government. More than two dozen community stations are already broadcasting to rural and indigenous communities. Núñez said the network did not carry government propaganda. Local journalists contend that the stations were designed specifically to give the administration a voice.

Date posted: June 13, 2007 Last modified: May 23, 2018 Total views: 2921