Freedom of the Press
You are here
Press Freedom Score (0 = best, 100 = worst)
Legal Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Political Environment(0 = best, 40 = worst)
Economic Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Press freedom declined further in 2010 as journalists were caught up in a polarized political environment in which strong rivalries exist between pro- and antigovernment media outlets, and government officials regularly express negative rhetoric against the news media, particularly those commentators who are critical of the policies of President Evo Morales. Bolivia’s 2009 constitution protects freedom of expression but allows for some limitations. While Article 21 lays out an expansive right to communicate freely, Article 107 imposes a duty to communicate with “truth and responsibility.” Article 107 also creates the opportunity for content-based restrictions by stipulating that the media must contribute to the promotion of the ethical, moral, and civic values of the nation’s multiple cultures. In 2010, legal protections for media freedom came under threat due to the approval of five new organic laws (those whose approval need an absolute majority in the legislature and are just one step short of being part of the constitution). The country’s three most important journalistic associations denounced all of them, especially the electoral reform law, for containing anti–press freedom provisions. The other laws in question are the Judicial Reform Law, the Multi-Ethnic Constitutional Law, the Decentralization and Regional Autonomy Law, and the Multi-Ethnic Electoral System Reform Law.
Another new law, the Law against Racism and All Forms of Discrimination, which represented an attempt to address ongoing issues regarding the portrayal of indigenous peoples in the media as well as their limited level of access to media outlets, attracted fierce opposition from both the country’s press corps and international press freedom organizations. Although its text contains several ambiguous references to the media, two of its articles, 16 and 23, potentially penalize freedom of information and opinion by allowing for the imposition of fines, permitting the withdrawal of operating licenses, and mandating imprisonment for reporting on or condoning racism or discrimination. On October 7, 17 Bolivian dailies protested against the law by publishing the same sentence on their front pages: “Without freedom of expression democracy is in danger.” International watchdogs also called on the legislature to reform the bill, but despite these protestations, the law was passed and enacted on October 8. The law was put to the test the following month in a case that took place in Potosi, where the former secretary of the peasants’ federation sued the presenter of a television program on which an audience member had called the plaintiff “llama face,” a racial slur against the indigenous people of Altiplano. The program was subsequently taken off the air by the channel’s managers. As the regional press freedom organization IPYS noted, this case illustrates the problems created by the law regarding the responsibility of media outlets; namely, the potential for a channel or presenter to be sued for comments they did not make or endorse, thus opening up the possibility of self-censorship. In a second case, where the law was applied retroactively, local officials in the Oruro region pressed charges in October against the daily La Patria, in relation to an article that referred to them by the diminutive “concejiles” (little councilmen), a term they considered to be discriminatory.
Defamation remains a criminal offense, with higher fines and sentences being applied to those who insult high-level officials. On February 23, Óscar Sandy, the executive director of a government-run institution, pressed criminal defamation charges against Carmen Melgar, a journalist for the Unitel television network. Sandy accused her of defaming the public institution when she reported, truthfully, that there was flour that had passed its “best before” date in the institution’s warehouses. Journalists face other types of legal harassment as well. Magazine editor and TV producer José Pomocusi was released after being summoned to testify about his alleged links to a plot to assassinate the president, which apparently was led by a group of businessmen from Santa Cruz. No connection between Pomocusi and the alleged plotters has been found. Three journalists were also summoned to testify about their alleged participation in attacks against peasants in Sucre in 2009. Two of them were able to prove that they were not in that city during the incidents, and the third testified that he was there only to cover the conflict.
On a positive note, Morales was the main engine behind the declassification of military files pertaining to several dictatorships that ruled Bolivia, especially those documents related to forced disappearances. The presidential order, however, was challenged by the army’s chief of staff, who refused to release the files.
Threats and attacks against the news media occurred with increasing regularity in 2010. These included cases in which journalists were physically beaten by crowds and local officials. On July 9, a mob that was being evicted by the police near Cochabamba, in central Bolivia, beat up a group of journalists who were covering the operation. The assailants also stole two cameras and assaulted a camera operator, who suffered a wound to the head. On March 13, Carlos Valverde Bravo, presenter of the program Sin Letra Chica, broadcast by the Activa TV cable network, showed images of a beating he suffered at the hands of two men. Valverde accused Gloria Limpias, organizer of the Miss Bolivia beauty pageant, of being behind the attack, which he assumed to be in retaliation for comments he had made about the contestants’ involvement in the electoral campaign of Morales’s ruling party. A security camera filmed the attack against Valverde, who was hit on the head by the men. One of Bolivia’s most notorious media bashers is Percy Fernández, mayor of the country’s second-largest city, Santa Cruz de la Sierra. In one instance, he threatened to shoot a reporter from the ATB TV network after the news crew tried to interview him on the street. Days before that incident, also in Santa Cruz, a mob of street vendors attacked a group of journalists with stones and clubs, injuring five of them. In Sucre, a group of progovernment activists pushed and shoved a Red Unitel TV network crew that was trying to interview the head of the municipal board.
As in Venezuela and Ecuador, the rapid growth of state-owned media continued in Bolivia in 2010. In addition to the state-owned television station, the government operates a news agency, a weekly newspaper, and a growing network of community radio stations. Civil society groups have expressed concern over the significant expansion of state-run channels and the conversion of all public media into a “proselytizing force” for the president. The television sector and Bolivia’s eight national and numerous local newspapers are for the most part privately owned, but many are tied to political parties, particularly in La Paz. Newspaper readership is limited due to low literacy rates, and radio is often the principal news medium, with community radio stations playing a major role. The government news agency, Agencia Boliviana de Información, currently provides a free news service via the internet to both public and private channels nationwide. About 20 percent of the population has access to the internet, and thus far the medium has not faced any official restrictions.