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Quechua-language radio station threatened by opponents of national government, suspends operations; government-media dialogues hailed

(RSF/IFEX) - Condemning physical attacks on journalists in Sucre and La Paz during rioting that followed the initial approval of a new Constitution on 24 November 2007, RSF hailed a dialogue which the government has started with the press as well as the appeals for responsibility made by some journalists' organisations.

The dialogue must be expanded to include the entire political class, both pro-government and opposition, and everyone must respect the pledges to give journalists the security they need in order to work, the press freedom organisation said.

"The constitutional process in Bolivia should be the occasion for a full-blown national debate that is promoted and covered by media of all tendencies," RSF said. "But once again, both the reputedly pro-government and opposition media have been the target of partisan violence.

"We welcome the dialogue between some sectors of the press and the government that was launched on 27 November. This dialogue should be broadened to include the entire political class, as the opposition groups have not been any kinder to the press than the pro-government activists. We hope that the cases of violence against journalists - whatever the source, including the security forces - will be properly investigated and that those responsible will be prosecuted."

RSF added: "The rule of law must be enforced by means of concrete measures, and this must be done without waiting for the new Constitution to take effect."

Presidential spokesman Alex Contreras met with various media representatives on 27 November. They included Marcelo Arce, the head of the Federation of La Paz Press Workers, who said the government had given guarantees "so that journalists and the media are completely safe to continue to do their job, which is to report the news."

The following day, the National Press Association, which groups media owners, called for "peace to be restored" and for "the approval of the new Constitution by consensus."

These positive signs followed a week of clashes between supporters and opponents of the new Constitution desired by President Evo Morales. The Constitution as a whole was approved on the evening of 24 November by 147 of the 255 representatives in the constituent assembly (in which the opposition refused to participate). The 147 who voted for the text were all members of the ruling Movement to Socialism (MAS).

The press paid dearly in the subsequent rioting.

In Sucre, where the constituent assembly has been holding its sessions, reporter Pablo Ortiz and photographer Ricardo Montero of the "El Deber" daily newspaper, reporter Adriana Gutiérrez and cameraman Pablo Tudela of the privately-owned television station PAT, and Agence France-Presse photographer Aizar Raldes were physically attacked by police in the course of clashes between police and members of indigenous organisations on the one hand, and students and Sucre residents opposed to the new Constitution on the other (see IFEX alert of 28 November 2007) "[The police] kicked me in the stomach, ribs and head but the gas-masks saved us," said Raldes, adding that he and his colleagues had to seek refuge in a house. Presidential chief of staff Juan Ramón Quintana announced an investigation. A sudden power outage in La Paz was meanwhile seen by many as deliberate sabotage of the live coverage of the constituent assembly debates by the Red Patria Nueva public radio.

The Sucre-based Catholic educational radio station ACLO, whose Quechua-language programmes are partly produced by local indigenous communities, was forced to suspend broadcasting the same day as a result of threats by radical opposition students including members of the Unión Juvenil Cruceñista, which has been responsible for physical attacks on public media in the past. ACLO journalists Grover Alejandro Pilco, Franz García and Johnnatan Condori fled the city. The vice-president of the Chuquisaca Region Civic Committee, José Luis Gantier, publicly accused the station of backing peasants and indigenous groups widely regarded as supporting the national government, in part because of President Morales' Quecha and Aymara ancestry, which has made him the target of racist attacks.

In La Paz, three privately-owned TV stations - ATB, which is owned by the Spanish media group Prisa, PAT and Unitel, which are owned by Santa Cruz businessmen - and two radio stations, Radio Fides and Radio Panamericana, were attacked by pro-government demonstrators on the night of 26 November after a pro-constitutional reform rally by President Morales.

Sacha Llorenti, the deputy minister for social movements, tried to dissuade the rioters. "We condemn the attacks on the media and we reaffirm our respect for press freedom," he said, while deploring that fact that some media had tried to "undermine the process launched by the government." On 24 November, President Morales accused media owners of pressuring their journalists to discredit the constituent assembly.

Dozens of journalists demonstrated in Sucre on 27 November, protesting acts of aggression by both police and militant groups. That day, Canal 13 television station, owned by the publicly-owned San Francisco Javier University, was fired upon.

RSF was also saddened to learn that BBC reporter Lola Almodóvar was killed in a traffic accident on the road between La Paz and Sucre. Her Reuters colleague, Eduardo García, was injured in the same accident.

The week's incidents left a toll of four dead (three civilians and a policeman) and hundreds of wounded. The ruling majority and the opposition continue to dispute whether a simple or a two-thirds majority is needed to adopt the Constitution, which must now be examined article by article before being put to a referendum. The constituent assembly's mandate expires on 14 December.

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