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OPPOSITION PROTESTERS BATTER PRESS

A wave of violent clashes between opponents and supporters of the government in Bolivia has badly hit the press, particularly public and community media, report the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC), the Institute for Press and Society (IPYS), the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) and other press freedom groups.

On 9 September, mobs of youths encouraged by the region's political leaders raided the offices of two state-owned media outlets - Patria Nueva and Canal 7 - in Santa Cruz, eastern Bolivia, destroying equipment and forcing them to halt broadcasts.

Violent protests broke out in several departments, including Santa Cruz, Pando, Beni and Tarija, as armed civilian groups demanded greater autonomy and more control over natural gas revenues in their areas. Protesters are insisting that the government scrap plans to hold a referendum in December on a new constitution, which would grant greater power to Bolivia's poor indigenous majority, say the IFEX members.

After 30 people were killed and 100 wounded in the clashes, President Evo Morales imposed martial law in the northern region of Pando on 12 September.

Some media, such as Radio Frontera in Cobija in Pando, had already decided to suspend broadcasts because of concerns for the safety of employees, who were constantly being harassed by civic committee members, says IPYS.

Juan Domingo Yañique, a journalist for the state-owned radio station Patria Nueva, and Radio Pando, the only station that carries a local news programme, was abducted in Cobija on 12 September, allegedly by militants who support the local authorities and oppose the central government, reports RSF. Just days before his kidnapping, Yañique told the National Journalists' Association (ANP) that he feared for his life and was fleeing to La Paz because of the constant death threats made against him.

Meanwhile, Claudia Méndez, of the privately-owned broadcasting network PAT, suffered gunshot wounds during a military operation in Cobija, says RSF.

"Silencing radio stations that defend and promote respect for individual and collective freedoms is a way to silence an entire country that has expressed their willingness to build a democratic project," said AMARC's regional office for Latin America and the Caribbean (AMARC-ALC). "Those responsible for the assaults are minority groups that defend their privileges, ignore the will of the Bolivian people and act against the civilian population by creating a climate of terror and chaos."

The Bolivian government strongly condemned the acts of violence. Interior Minister Alfredo Rada described the attacks as an attempted coup, blaming the political opposition. In the past year, tensions between the country's majority indigenous population and the dominant European-descended, Spanish-speaking elite have increased, especially in the eastern lowlands.

RSF reports that opposition groups have accepted an offer by President Morales to enter into peace talks. "We hope that a political agreement will become part of the new constitution," RSF said in a letter to Morales. According to the BBC, all nine presidents attending an emergency summit of South American leaders this week condemned the political violence and called on Bolivia's opposition to end its protests.

The unrest in Bolivia has also triggered a downturn in relations with the U.S., say news reports. Last week Bolivia accused the U.S. of supporting the opposition and expelled its ambassador. Venezuela followed suit to show solidarity, and Honduras has refused to accept the credentials of a new U.S. envoy.

The U.S. says it regrets the recent diplomatic expulsions and has rejected Bolivia's allegations against its ambassador.

Visit these links:
- AMARC-ALC on Indymedia: http://tinyurl.com/3lybdx
- IAPA: http://tinyurl.com/5542cl
- IPYS: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/97012/
- CPJ: http://tinyurl.com/4gsxwy
- CPJ 2007 special report, "Bolivia's Historic Moment": http://www.cpj.org/boliviahistoric/index.html
- RSF: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=28550
- BBC, "Neighbours back Bolivian leader": http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/7617873.stm
(Photo: A government office is targeted during a protest in the Bolivian city of Santa Cruz, where official sites and public radio stations have been sacked and burned. Dado Galdieri/Associated Press)

(17 September 2008)

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