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Journalists protest against controversial anti-racism law

"No democracy without freedom of expression" read the front page headlines on 7 October of major newspapers opposed to Bolivia's new anti-racism law

Bolivia's just-passed law against racism and discrimination has spawned a new outbreak of journalist protests, from public demos to hunger strikes. Bolivia's National Press Association (ANP), an IFEX interim member, argues that the law threatens press freedom and imposes censorship because it gives the government the power to shut down media outlets or throw journalists in jail simply for writing about racism.

Evo Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president, says the Law Against Racism and All Forms of Discrimination will help reverse centuries of discrimination against the country's indigenous majority. It will come into effect in January.

According to ANP, journalists have been protesting the law since it was in draft form. In Potosí, journalists and news media went on strike for 24 hours on 1 October, leaving the city without information. Five journalists in Santa Cruz even started a hunger strike last week.

On 7 October - a day before the law was approved in Congress and signed by Morales - 17 major newspapers from across the country, such as "El Diario" and "La Prensa", made a last-ditch plea to make amendments to the law. They published their front pages blank, except for the message "No democracy without freedom of expression".

Days before the law was passed, 24 IFEX members, led by ANP, urged the Congress to remove any references to the media and journalists from the offending articles. They stated that Bolivian journalists' organisations have developed their own codes of ethics and tribunals that punish inappropriate conduct.

IFEX members are not opposed to the racism law in its entirety. At issue are two articles of the law that the members say could be misused to stifle political criticism.

Article 16 says that "any media outlet that endorses or publishes racist or discriminatory ideas will be liable to economic sanctions and the suspension of its operating licence."

Article 23 stipulates that when a crime is committed by a journalist or the owner of a media outlet, the individual will face "a prison sentence of one to five years" and "will not be able to claim immunity or any other privilege."

Balcazar Martin, director of "La Prensa", explained, "Although we have said this ad nauseam, we repeat: journalists are not against the fight against racism and discrimination. We are only defending freedom of expression as was violated by Articles 16 and [23]."

Meanwhile, the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters - Latin America and the Caribbean (AMARC-ALC), which has taken a different approach in its campaign, is calling instead for the articles to be revised so that they reflect that there are limitations to free expression. The law should "strike a proper balance between protecting the right to free expression and the right to non-discrimination," said AMARC-ALC.

Responding to the protests, Morales said he would not suggest amendments to the law, but would invited press organisations to discuss how the law might be applied. In a press conference last week, he said that freedom of expression was protected, but could be used as a pretext for racism.

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