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IAPA mission validates its concerns about decline in press freedom

(IAPA/IFEX) - Miami, October 20, 2010 - An Inter American Press Association (IAPA) delegation, in La Paz early this week, called on the administration of President Evo Morales to open up a space for discussion of the recently enacted anti-racism law, which, it said, intensifies the deterioration of press freedom in the South American country.

After two days of meetings with governing-party and opposition members of Congress, religious leaders, media representatives and officers of the National Press Association, IAPA Press Institute President Gustavo Mohme, who headed the mission, said, "Our concerns about the content of Articles 16 and 23 of the new anti-racism legislation have been substantiated."

Mohme, editor of the Lima, Peru, newspaper La República, added that the new law "expands press freedom violations because of its punitive nature and because it makes it possible to suspend or close down media or bring criminal charges against journalists for disseminating news reports, ideas and opinions, including those that are attributed to third parties."

The Law against Racism and All Forms of Discrimination was enacted on October 8. Although its text contains several ambiguous references to the media, two of its articles, 16 and 23, penalize freedom of information and opinion by imposing fines, permitting the withdrawal of operating licenses, and mandating imprisonment for reporting on or condoning racism or discrimination.

Claudio Paolillo, editor of the Montevideo, Uruguay, news magazine Búsqueda, said that the new law is a step backwards for Bolivia because it ignores the Inter American Court of Human Rights' case law that decriminalizes offenses committed through the press. "We are concerned that even before the law was enacted we had warned of its consequences," he declared, adding, "due to its ambiguities and lack of precision a number of news media outlets are already resorting to self-censorship."

During a press conference on 19 October, the IAPA delegates acknowledged that most people do not object to the outlawing of racism and discrimination, but they regretted that "in the name of this just cause" the government of Evo Morales is concealing its confrontation with the press by imposing special and direct penalties on the media and journalists when laws already exist to protect anyone who feels he has been offended by the press.

The mission expressed its regret that the federal government has been less than open to discussing the consequences that the new law will have for freedom of the press and urged Morales publicly to "create the opportunity for a discussion on options to amend the law."

In meetings with members of Congress for the ruling party, Jorge Medina Barra and Marianela Paco Durán, and Ombudsman Rolando Villena, the delegation was informed that the government has no intention whatsoever of amending the articles disputed by press associations and journalists. Just one week ago the IAPA ran an ad in several Bolivian newspapers warning that the law "will never fulfill its promise or meet its social and humanitarian objectives as long as it allows for prior censorship through the imposition of harsh penalties that go against the public's right to know."

The IAPA delegation also met with reporters and representatives of press labor unions to offer its support and congratulations for their battle in favor of freedom of expression and the public's right to be informed. Several journalists ended a protest hunger strike this week but continue collecting signatures until they reach the one million mark. Such a petition would allow them to present a "citizens' legislative initiative," based on a constitutional provision, that would require Congress to come up with a new law or repeal or amend the existing Articles 16 and 23.

The mission also contacted seven senators, among them the leader of the opposition Convergencia bloc, Germán Anteló; although it was unable to visit President Morales, away on a trip to Peru, the President had declared that his doors are always open to talk with the IAPA.

Mission delegates will report their findings to the IAPA's General Assembly in Mérida, Mexico, November 5-9.

In addition to Mohme and Paolillo the delegation included IAPA Press Freedom Director Ricardo Trotti.

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