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Journalists again targets of violence, harassment during autonomy referendum in Beni department

(RSF/IFEX) - RSF condemns the 1 June 2008 attacks on journalists that took place during a referendum on autonomy in the northern department of Beni.

At least two media outlets were the targets of threats and harassment by those opposed to the government in La Paz, including the Juvenil Cruceñista Union (Unión Juvenil Cruceñista, UJC), a radical militia that stemmed from the independence movement in Santa Cruz department.

"Armed groups hostile to the government in La Paz are increasingly acting like predators on freedom of information," the worldwide press freedom organisation said. "The recent autonomy referendums - in Santa Cruz on 4 May and yesterday [1 June] in the departments of Pando and Beni - are adding to a climate of political tension in which the press is one of the first to be targeted".

Clashes between supporters and opponents of autonomy during the consultation process in Beni led to a variety of obstructions of the work of the press. In the department's capital, Trinidad, members of the UJC systematically harassed special correspondents for state-run Canal 7 television station.

One of the station's journalists, René Martínez, said that the cables on its transmission vehicle were twice cut with machetes. "They managed to interrupt our programme twice this Sunday. Then, as we were visiting schools for the vote count, the same youths insulted and threatened us", he said. "Our cameraman, Edgar Quenallata, had to leave and I was forced to flee on a motorbike", he told RSF.

Meanwhile, in Riberalta, a group of pro-autonomy thugs chased after another team from Canal 7, forcing them to take refuge in the home of a local resident.

Community, indigenous and peasant media outlets, regularly targeted for racist violence by militia hostile to President Evo Morales, were not spared during the referendum violence in Beni. Gumersindo Yumani, of Coordinadora Audiovisual Indígena television, was threatened in Nuevos Horizontes by militants of the Juvenil Riberalteña Union, a similar organisation to the UJC, who seized his camera and returned it with images deleted.

Several other state media outlets, considered close to the government, were harassed throughout the weekend, particularly the international station TV Telesur, Canal Universitario de Trinidad, Televisión Boliviana, Radio Patria Nueva, the Bolivian News Agency (Agencia Boliviana de Informaciones, ABI) and the specialised Cinematography, Education and Production Centre (Centro Especializado de Formación Cinematográfica, CEFREC).

RSF urged that, beyond a general commitment by Bolivia's political classes to uphold basic freedoms, including freedom of information, "all opposition political parties should publicly distance themselves from these regional militia and contribute to justice".

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