Freedom of the Press
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Freedom of the Press Scores
Key Developments in 2016:
- Senior government officials openly condemned media outlets that reported critically on President Evo Morales, with Presidency Minister Juan Ramón Quintana saying such outlets comprised a “cartel of lies,” and Vice President Álvaro García Linero calling for critical journalist to be incarcerated.
- Journalist Humberto Vacaflor recanted an allegation that Morales had been involved in the 2000 murder of a police officer after a court agreed to hear a criminal defamation case Morales had filed against him.
- In December, cinemas across the country screened, at no charge, a government-backed film entitled The Cartel of Lies, which scrutinized press outlets and reporters who had reported critically on Morales. The film was also posted to the Ministry of the Presidency’s YouTube page.
Independent media in Bolivia are active, but face worsening conditions under the administration of President Morales, which exerts pressure on journalists and outlets through lawsuits and verbal harassment by officials. Meanwhile, public advertising contracts are disproportionately awarded to government-friendly outlets, which have become more prevalent due to media acquisitions by businesspersons aligned with Morales. Recent years have seen a number of politicized dismissals and resignations of prominent journalists who reported critically on the government. Journalists engage in self-censorship, with many fearing that they could lose their jobs in connection with reporting critical of authorities or of advertisers.
In February 2016, voters rejected a referendum that would have permitted Morales to run for a fourth term. The vote was widely viewed as a rebuke to the president, who responded to it with an attempt to crack down on online media, which he appeared to blame for the referendum’s defeat. Soon after the vote, the government created the General Directorate of Social Networks, a body within the Ministry of Communications tasked with coordinating the government’s interactions with online communities. This mission involves efforts to disseminate government-friendly messages online and to engage with government critics on social media, often aggressively. Authorities also proposed a pair of measures that would have imposed greater regulation on online outlets, but they were never implemented. Additionally, in June, Bolivia joined 16 other countries including Venezuela and Cuba in rejecting a UN Human Rights Commission resolution affirming the right to a free, uncensored internet.
Separately, in August, a criminal court announced that it would hear a defamation case Morales had filed against Vacaflor, a journalist who in a televised interview had suggested that Morales was involved the 2000 murder of a police officer and his wife. In September, under pressure from the court, Vacaflor recanted his accusation, and the charges were later dropped.
Top government officials continued to verbally harass journalists in connection with their work, undermining legal protections for media and contributing to a hostile operating environment. In June, Vice President García Linero singled out a number of outlets who had reported critically on Morales ahead of the February referendum, alleging his involvement in a corruption scheme relating to the Chinese company CAMC Engineering, and claiming that he had fathered a child with a former romantic partner who was linked to the company. García Linero deemed the outlets members of a “political media mafia” and added that they should be jailed. A month earlier, Presidency Minister Ramón Quintana had labelled the same group of outlets a “cartel of liars” in connection with their coverage of Morales. In October, Ramón Quintana ordered the production of a documentary, entitled The Cartel of Lies, which argued that the outlets were conspiring to destabilize Morales’s government. Journalists’ associations sharply criticized the project, and noted that it was produced with public funds. In December, the film was screened free of charge at a number of cinemas across the country, and was published to the Presidency Ministry’s account on the video-sharing website YouTube.
In August, President Morales signed the Adaptation for Broadcast Operators Law, which extended radio and television broadcasting licenses until 2019, and created the possibility of automatically renewal for another 15 years if broadcasters complied with content requirements to be set by the government. These requirements are unclear, but some observers, noting that presidential elections are scheduled for 2019, expressed concern that authorities might use the renewal process to press outlets for positive coverage of the ruling-party candidate. Broadcasters that do not see licenses renewed automatically under the new rules would have to go through a public tender process.
This country report has been abridged for Freedom of the Press 2017. For background information on press freedom in Bolivia, see Freedom of the Press 2016.