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Television news director spied upon by police; media outlets, journalist attacked

(RSF/IFEX) - RSF is dismayed by the revelation that the police department's intelligence service has been involved in unauthorised spying upon, among others, Juan José Espada, the news director of the privately-owned television channel Unitel. RSF hopes this revelation will not affect negatively the dialogue being held between the government and media that began after acts of violence were perpetrated against the press at the height of the political crisis of 2007 (see IFEX alert of 6 December 2007 and others).

RSF stresses that journalists must be able to enjoy all the guarantees of professional secrecy they need in order to do their job properly.

"We welcome the government's swift reaction to the news of this spying, in which sectors of the police appear to have overstepped the limits of their duties." RSF said. "The investigation into the spying on Espada must now establish whether the aim was to identify his sources. If this turns out to be the case, it would constitute a grave violation of press freedom, which depends on professional secrecy. We also want to know whether other journalists were spied on."

The organisation added: "These revelations should nonetheless not be used as an argument for reviving tension between the media and the political class or for polarising the media. There is a greater need than ever to pursue the dialogue initiated between the government and media representatives after last year's violent protests and to contribute to social peace, just as the dialogue between the central government and the opposition state governors must continue."

The domestic espionage scandal broke on 24 January 2008 when the privately-owned television channels Cadena A, ATB, PAT and Unitel and the national dailies "La Razón" and "El Nuevo Dia" all reported receiving a CD-ROM containing a dozen or so case files, about 40 memos and more than 400 photos revealing spying carried out by the national police intelligence service at the end of 2007, without any supervision from above.

A total of 18 politicians were among the targets of the spying, including former president Jorge Quiroga, who heads the opposition Podemos party, and four provincial governors opposed to President Evo Morales. They also included Senate speaker Oscar Ortiz and two parliamentary representatives of the ruling Movement to Socialism (MAS), Gustavo Torrico and Guido Guardia. And they included Espada, who was Unitel's joint news director in La Paz at the time although he is now based in Santa Cruz. Relations between Unitel and the government have been tense for some time.

On 25 January, in the absence of President Morales, who was visiting Argentina, Vice-President Alvaro Garcia ordered the national police commander, Gen. Miguel Vásquez, to provide him with full information about the spying. Vásquez publicly held the intelligence service responsible and promised that the press's rights would be fully protected.

The drafting of a new Constitution has been very divisive and has caused a national political crisis in which both pro-government and opposition media were the targets of threats and violence in 2007. So far in 2008, the government and opposition have been trying to defuse the tension.

Nonetheless, the La Paz headquarters of PAT were slightly damaged in an attack on 19 January, as was ATB's headquarters on 25 January. Several newspapers also reported that René Fernández of Radio Cadena Nacional was physically attacked on 25 January in La Paz and warned to reveal nothing about the spying, which he has been investigating.

The media are also concerned about possibly changes to legislation concerning the confidentiality of journalists' sources.

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