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The government considers the press an enemy, says head of media freedom organisation

Juan Javier Zeballos
Juan Javier Zeballos

Photo courtesy of ANP

An IPI question and answer with media freedom campaigner Juan Javier Zeballos

(IPI/IFEX) - VIENNA, 4 December 2009 - On Sunday 6 December, Bolivians will cast their votes in general elections, with the re-election of the incumbent President, Evo Morales, at stake.

However, the voting will take place in a media climate that many among the country's independent press describe as increasingly oppressive and aggressive.

In recent weeks alone, attacks on the media have included special police units pursuing and shooting at journalists, workers' groups detonating dynamite outside newspaper premises, and a knife attack on, and kidnapping of, a reporter.

One organisation that tracks and reports on such press freedom violations is the Asociación Nacional de Prensa (National Press Association, or ANP). The figures they have compiled tell a shocking story: 123 physical attacks on journalists since August 2007, eight bomb attacks on media property, 20 cases of journalists being held hostage, one murder.

IPI spoke to ANP's executive director, the current ombudsman of the Santa Cruz daily El Deber and experienced journalist Juan Javier Zeballos, about the ANP, the press freedom climate in Bolivia, and what the ANP considers the major challenges to press freedom in Bolivia.

Q: What is the "National Press Association" exactly?

The National Press Association (ANP) is an institution that brings together the country's principal print media (24 in total, including dailies weeklies and magazines). Its delegates are the directors, be they the owners or not, of these periodicals. It was formed in order to defend freedom of the press and expression, and to train journalists.

Its purpose - in terms of its training - is to create a serious, responsible and impartial journalism, without the influence of political ideologies. The ANP has an ethics tribunal, appointed a month ago, and commissioned to deal with readers' claims of violations of the ANP's code of ethics, which you can download from our website at www.anpbolivia.com.

The ANP was founded in 1973, and after a break of some years it restarted its activities in 1993.

Q: You have shared some figures with us, concerning violations against press freedom in Bolivia between August 2007 and November 2009. The figures look worrying, for example, you have counted 123 instances of journalists being physically assaulted. But has press freedom worsened or improved over recent years? How do these figures compare to those from earlier this decade and before?

Press freedom in Bolivia has deteriorated significantly since the rise of Evo Morales to the presidency of what is now called the Plurinational State of Bolivia. The president, in 2005, shortly before starting his presidential term, accused the media of being his "main enemy". During the four years of his term he has made unfounded accusations against the private media of being his opponents, and of it being at the service of "US imperialism", and also against journalists of being dirty, of being in the pockets of and in support of the opposition, separatism and the oligarchs. Following these accusations, social groups related to the government attack journalists, insult them, beat them, and throw stones at the media. This creates fear among journalists, who then often take shelter in self-censorship, which means that, through these attacks and acts of aggression, freedom of the press is being curtailed, despite the government assurances that there is liberty.

However, recently, in the last two months alone, we have registered two gun attacks on journalists, carried out by police special units. The authorities have done absolutely nothing to investigate and bring to justice the perpetrators of the first attack, despite the fact that not only was the leader of the unit that shot at the journalists clearly identified as Captain Walter Andrade, but that he also admitted to taking part in the attack, which was on journalists of the television network UNITEL, in Santa Cruz.

Only two police officers were identified, suspended, and faced an internal inquiry when a special unit shot at a vehicle in which two coordinators for a news programme of the national network Periodistas Asociados de Televisión (PAT) were travelling, also in Santa Cruz - an attack during which the vehicle's driver was injured in the leg. The two programme coordinators say they were dragged by the hair by the officers, kicked and taken to a special police unit, and released only after it was established that they worked for a media company.

Since nothing was done against Captain Andrade and his subordinates, it leads one to suppose that there is some kind of protection for these police aggressors. They belong to a unit that took part in an act that killed three people - one Bolivian, one Irishman and one Hungarian - accused by the government of belonging to a terrorist group that, they say, intended to assassinate President Evo Morales.

Q: Can one really blame the government for all these attacks? For example, if it is the police that are attacking journalists, as in the cases mentioned above, can you really say that the new government is behind this?

You can't accuse the government or president directly, but the physical attacks on journalists by particular social groups have occurred, generally, after the president accused journalists and the media of being his opponents.

The police attacks on journalists appear to be the consequence of police authoritarianism and the power acquired by this institution which, probably, has escaped the control of the sector's principal authorities, such as Police Commander General Victor Hugo Escobar, and Government Minister Alfredo Rada.

Q: Attacks against state media have also been recorded, for example, the attacks on radio broadcaster 'Patria Nueva' at the beginning of November. How do you explain these attacks?

The attacks against state media, which has become government media, are carried out by political groups that oppose the government, during public demonstrations that have taken place mainly in the cities of Santa Cruz and Sucre, Bolivia's capital.

Q: In your opinion, what is the main reason for the deterioration in media freedom in Bolivia?

The main reason is that the government does not like information and editorials being published, with which it is not in agreement. The government doesn't understand, or doesn't want to understand, that the media's fundamental job is to inspect the powers of State. It considers the press an enemy, as the press cannot and should not hide human rights violations and legal transgressions perpetrated by government officials.

It appears that its aim is to discredit or eliminate the press in order to remove obstacles to its clear intention to control all State powers.

In this sense, there is a huge similarity with the attitudes of the governments of Venezuela, Ecuador and Nicaragua, which also want a servile press.

Q: It does seem that there are similarities between Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia, particularly concerning the aggressive language which the leaders of these countries use against the independent media. In your opinion, is there a reason why this is occurring in the region as a whole?

The Venezuelan government has a huge influence in Ecuador and Bolivia, because it has a similar political ideology. These three, together with Nicaragua, have a socialist outlook and their presidents have founded a form of populism with anti US-imperial slogans. Venezuela and Bolivia have both expelled their country's US Ambassadors, accusing them of attempting to interfere with internal politics and of trying to destabilise them. With various Caribbean countries they've created the "Bolivarian Alliance" (Alianza Bolivariana, or ALBA) whose central aim is to establish common strategies to achieve a socialism similar to Cuba's, according to Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez.

Q: In Venezuela, the media - like its society - is highly polarised. It seems that the private media in Venezuela is, generally speaking, highly critical of the government, and that public media are highly critical of the private media while supportive of the government. Are there also similarities here between Venezuela and Bolivia?

What is happening with the media in Venezuela is exactly the same in Bolivia. The government is using public media to attack the opposition, and considers the private media an opposition spokesperson. Here at ANP, we maintain that Bolivian journalism, like in any part of the world, is critical of the role of government, regardless of which party is in government, because that is the media's function - not because it is allied with the opposition. The Bolivian media demands that the government respects the laws which it is breaking; it demands respect for human rights, when the government violates these; it demands that the government works in a democratic framework when the president or ministers act in a characteristically dictatorial way, something which is inadmissible in a regime that attained power precisely through the democratic system that still exists in this country.

Q: Given this, if there is one main problem facing the Bolivian press, what is it?

The Bolivian press' main problem is the self-censorship which comes through the fear of suffering government reprisals. For example, a newspaper was paid to publish a small, pull-out section put together by a peasant organisation, which contained a report against the government. The government announced that it would start a legal case against the newspaper. Another daily from the interior of the country that was supposed to publish the same pull-out, paid for by the peasant workers, didn't do so, as they were afraid to face charges.

Other problems facing the Bolivian press are physical and verbal attacks, especially from pro-government groups or governmental authorities, and the insults coming from the president, because these are what set off the attacks on the media and the aggression against journalists by the so-called social movements.

Q: What has to happen in order for the situation to improve?

The government has to comply with and respect freedom of expression and freedom of the press, and it has to recognise the true role of journalism.

Q: Liberty of expression is guaranteed by Article 7 of Bolivia's constitution, which states that everybody has the right to "freely transmit his or her ideas or opinions through any media". How does the government justify its attitude towards the media in light of these guarantees, and are there efforts to hold the government accountable for violating the constitution?

Precisely that is what journalists want from the government: that it complies with what is stated in the constitution, and doesn't violate it. The constitution is violated when, through verbal attacks on journalists and the press, self-censorship is generated, which is contrary to freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

Q: What is your "prognosis" for the future of press freedom in Bolivia?

If it turns out to be true that the government's intention is to subjugate the private media to its own will, it is probable that to achieve this it will turn to creating some kind of law that will significantly limit freedom of the press and expression. If this - which is at the moment is a possibility - becomes concrete, liberty of expression would be seriously infringed, as is happening now in Venezuela and is about to happen in Ecuador.

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El periodista disidente saudí @AliAlAhmed_en ha sido bombardeado a correos electrónicos que le incitaban a pinchar… https://t.co/psMmKVkXn3

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