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Evo Morales betrays contradictions in his position toward the press

(IPI/IFEX) - 13 March 2012 - "Freedom of expression is guaranteed. In fact, freedom of expression is exaggerated,” Bolivian President Evo Morales said yesterday during a press conference held in the Austrian Parliament as part of his one-day visit to Vienna. The leader betrayed contradictions between his words and his actions when he was asked about freedom of the press and of expression in his country.

According to the National Press Association of Bolivia (ANP), 200 assaults against journalists occurred in 2011 in the Andean country. Additionally, the International Press Institute (IPI) last year registered at least seven attacks against media outlets. IPI pointed out these figures to the president yesterday, but Morales answered with another question: "Who were those who attacked the media?” IPI responded that in most cases social groups had been the aggressors.

Morales explained: "I heard out there some international organizations saying that there is no freedom of expression (in Bolivia). They call me 'monkey', 'donkey', and what do the media say? 'It is time to get rid of his Excellency the murderer'. We process that, we put up with it, we have patience. It is true, after those statements, some groups react against these lies, and the falsehood of some media outlets. Sometimes the government has to go and protect the infrastructure of those media outlets that unfortunately are permanently distorting information."

According to the president, the Bolivian press has assumed the task of practicing politics, replacing the opposition parties. Morales said the media represents the interests of businessmen and that they even “make dead people appear in order to confuse the country,” insinuating that the media fabricates stories in order to sow instability. He stressed that nobody punishes nor penalizes these media outlets.

The president said, however, that when the media uses real data to criticize him, he calls his ministers and asks them to review whether the media is wrong. He said that in such cases, the government recognizes and corrects the errors.

"It would be good if the media were very responsible with the information, with the truth. I think the media should be reporting the truth and not get into politics,"
he added.

IPI asked the president for his opinion about the relationship that member governments of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) have had with the press, specifically countries like Ecuador and Venezuela, which have recently pursued lawsuits against critical media.

Morales answered: "Some presidents are defending themselves, including in Ecuador, Argentina, Venezuela and other countries. In Bolivia perhaps we are very tolerant, we are silent and endure. Maybe that is more important, because in the end the people judge who is telling the truth. I wish the media would improve their behavior, and educate the people based on the truth."

IPI is dismayed that President Morales considers the media to be his opposition and, therefore, instead of condemning attacks against critical press, seems to leave his followers free to "react against the lies," which has at times resulted in violence.

"Instead of making recommendations to the media about their need to work with responsibility and honesty, Morales should send a message to his supporters condemning the violence. Attacks against journalists and media outlets are his responsibility," Alison Bethel McKenzie, executive director of IPI, said. IPI, the oldest global press freedom organization in the world, recently wrote a letter to the Bolivian president expressing satisfaction about the meeting he held last month with media organizations.

"While Morales announced that he will not promote changes to the Press Law, we believe it is necessary that he clarify whether he is considering other initiatives to regulate the media. IPI asked him that yesterday, but he evaded the answer. If he is saying in international forums that the media is lying and that other countries have had to 'defend themselves', we fear that the Bolivian media face risks," Bethel McKenzie said.

As IPI previously reported, the president in late-February requested an immediate and thorough investigation into the deaths of Veronica Peñasco Layme and Victor Hugo Layme, brother and sister journalists murdered in Bolivia on Feb. 25. "Actions such as these seem to show that Morales is interested in the media, but then he contradicts himself when speaking in outside forums," Bethel McKenzie said.

Yesterday, near the end of the meeting with journalists, when the correspondent of the Spanish news agency EFE was insistent on asking a question, Morales rebuked him: "Let me finish, let us be disciplined. You seem like a Bolivian journalist."

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