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Three journalists injured, TV station damaged by fire during Santa Cruz autonomy referendum

(RSF/IFEX) - RSF is alarmed by the number of attacks on the news media during a referendum held on 4 May 2008 in the eastern department of Santa Cruz on an autonomy proposal for the region. Three journalists were injured while a fire started by protesters damaged the installations of a TV station in the La Paz suburb of El Alto.

"For more than a year the Bolivian press has had to deal with the extreme hostility of political activists, who identify journalists with one political faction or another according to the state or privately-owned news media they work for," RSF said. "This systematic stigmatization of the media already led to the death of a municipal radio employee near La Paz in March. Will there be no limit to the escalation?"

The press freedom organisation added: "We urge President Evo Morales's new spokesperson, former journalist Iván Canelas, who recently gave us an interview, to quickly meet with representatives of the political class in order to obtain all the necessary guarantees on press freedom, free expression and the safety of journalists."

Photographer Miguel Carrasco of the daily "La Razón" was attacked in Yapacaní (in the Santa Cruz region) on 3 May while covering a demonstration by migrants from the Altiplano opposed to the autonomy proposal, who spotted him taking photographs of them as they laid siege to the pro-autonomy movement's local headquarters.

"I tried to escape, but they caught up with me, surrounded me and began to hit me," Carrasco told RSF. "I fell to the ground and was kicked. I tried to protect my camera until someone hit me with a tree branch and I lost consciousness. That is when they took my camera."

He said his assailants accused him of working for the leaders of the pro-autonomy camp, namely Santa Cruz governor Rubén Costa and Branko Marinkovic, the president of the Santa Cruz Civic Committee. Although "La Razón" reporter Alvaro Arias interceded on his behalf, Carrasco's camera and wallet were not returned. He was hospitalised in Yapacaní.

Cameraman José Luís Herrera Rojas of the privately-owned TV station Red Unitel was hit in the face by a stone on 3 May in Montero (in the Santa Cruz region), where there were clashes between autonomy supporters and opponents. Herrera was hospitalised. At the same time, journalists with three other privately-owned TV stations, PAT, Red Uno and Canal 18, were affected by tear gas.

On 4 May, reporter Maritza Roca Bruno of Radio Marítima was outside the International Press Centre that had been set up in Santa Cruz for the referendum when she was attacked by five people, including central government official Homero Amorín, after she found them in a truck laden with ballots.

"They wanted to denounce an alleged case of fraud to the international press," she told RSF. "I asked them where they found all the ballots. A woman responded by punching me and calling me a journalist for hire. They then insulted me, threatened to kill me and said I was being followed."

In Al Alto on 4 May, referendum opponents threw stones at the installation of Canal 24, a TV station owned by La Paz governor José Luis Paredes, a political ally of the pro-autonomy camp. They also burned tyres outside the entrance to the TV station and, although anti-riot police intervened, the premises were partially damaged by fire. Canal 24 had to suspend broadcasting for the entire evening of 4 May, and was not back on the air until the following morning.

The attacks were condemned by the National Press Association (ANP) on 5 May, while the president of the La Paz Journalists Association (APLP), Renán Estenssoro, stressed that the media were not political actors. "We just do our job, which is to inform society," he said.

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