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Cablegate: Attacks Against Freedom of the Press in Bolivia

VZCZCXYZ0002
RR RUEHWEB

DE RUEHLP #0647/01 0842106
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 242106Z MAR 08
FM AMEMBASSY LA PAZ
TO SECSTATE WASHDC 6909

UNCLAS LA PAZ 000647

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PHUM PGOV PREL BL
SUBJECT: ATTACKS AGAINST FREEDOM OF THE PRESS IN BOLIVIA

REFTEL: 2007 LA PAZ 2854

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Summary
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1. (SBU) Attacks against the press are frequent in Bolivia, but the
number and severity of these attacks has risen over the past two
years. The Superintendent of Telecommunications issued and then
retracted after a public outcry a policy stating that published or
transmitted information, even if true, could be penalized if the
information provoked a strong public response. President Evo
Morales' ruling Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party's proposed
constitution also contemplates language that would limit the rights
of reporters to freely practice their trade. President Morales
often calls the press his government's "number one enemy." Bolivian
and international press organizations have argued in defense of the
media, but as attacks against journalists and media owners increase,
the future of freedom of expression in Bolivia remains unclear. End
summary.

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MAS Constitution Not Press Friendly
------------------------------------

2. (SBU) Media organizations have been concerned for some time
about an article in the MAS draft constitution that states: "The
information and opinions issued through the media must respect the
principles of truth and responsibility." The National Press
Association (ANP) denounced the article in front of the OAS on March
18 stating that freedom of expression is in danger in Bolivia. If
approved, government officials could use the article as the basis to
press legal charges against citizens it believes to have defied the
article's principals. The ANP says the article in the proposed
constitution violates international and universal norms such as the
UN Declaration of Human Rights, the American Convention on Human
Rights, and the Inter-American Declaration on Freedom of
Expression.

--------------------------------------------
Regulator to Press: Behave or Face Sanctions
--------------------------------------------

3. (SBU) In mid-March the Superintendent of Telecommunications
(SITTEL) sent a letter to more than a thousand radio and TV stations
instructing them to refrain from broadcasting information that "even
if authentic, could harm or alarm the population on account of the
way or time it is broadcast." The letter was sent just as popular
protests over rising food prices were heating up, and there is some
speculation that the letter was a warning to media outlets over
stories that highlighted food shortages and price hikes in staples.
On March 19, the ANP issued a communiqu "firmly rejecting" SITTEL's
letter, arguing that it represented a "veiled and unacceptable" form
of government censorship. The communiqu stated that ANP regretted
SITTEL's meddling in journalistic content by arbitrarily telling
media outlets what they can broadcast. The communiqu concluded,
"This attitude adds to the government's decision at the
Constitutional Assembly of incorporating into the [proposed]
constitution a mechanism that violates the Bolivian peoples' freedom
of expression."

4. (SBU) Media organizations, the opposition, and several
government officials, all rejected the SITTEL letter. Even the Vice
President joined the massive outcry. "Democracy is based on freedom
of expression and on a free press. We renew our commitment to the
principle of this right," the Vice President said. Bolivian
government spokesman and former journalist Alex Contreras described
the letter as incoherent, inappropriate, and out of line since it
goes against the government's stance as a "fervent defender" of the
freedom of expression and information in the country. Contreras
asked SITTEL to retract the letter by sending the media another
letter correcting the mistake. Contreras went a step further and
asserted that the government will defend freedom of expression and
information to the end.

5. (SBU) On March 20, after the wave of criticism from the public
and from the government itself, SITTEL suspended the application of
the letter and admitted it had based the letter on legislation that
was no longer applicable. A follow-on communiqu sent by SITTEL
said: "In the face of norms drafted more than a decade ago that at
present are insufficient to be put in service, it is the duty of all
the actors involved to... bring up to date or annul those norms."
The communiqu concludes indicating that the letter sent to more
than a thousand media would not be put into effect.

6. (SBU) Several prominent La Paz journalists in two separate TV
Sunday (March 23) news talk shows expressed that the SITTEL letter
was not accidental. They noted that SITTEL cited a very old law, a
law that was not even enforced during the military dictatorships.
The unearthing of such an old law indicates SITTEL had researched
its position. The journalists argued that the superintendent -- a
government-appointed official -- would not have drafted the letter
in isolation. Rather, the superintendent must have done so at the
request of a higher-ranking government official, perhaps some of the
same government officials who are now pretending to be shocked by
it. The journalists believe the letter is designed to serve as a
legal justification for the article in the MAS's proposed
constitution that says that the media must respect the principles of
truth and responsibility. They questioned who would be authorized
to determine truthful and responsible journalism under the new
constitution. The journalists argued that the answers to these
questions point directly to government officials who intend to
muzzle the media.

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A Long History of Press Enmity
------------------------------

7. (SBU) SITTEL'S letter was not the government's first foray into
restricting the press's work. In June 2007, President Morales
signed a decree limiting the concession of radio licenses for rural
areas. The decree forbids rural radio stations from broadcasting
political messages. However, the rule does not apply to the thirty
government-controlled "community radio stations" that President
Morales created with two million dollars in Venezuelan government
financing. The Bolivian government's national communication
director admitted that the objective of creating these stations was
to act as a counterbalance to the radio stations linked to the
opposition from the media luna (the eastern provinces including the
departments of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni, and Pando).

8. (SBU) During a message to Congress early this year commemorating
his first two years in office, the President proposed eliminating
the right to protect confidential sources in order to make
information more transparent and to prevent slander. The La Paz
Press Association immediately rejected the proposal arguing that the
decision would go against those who reveal corruption, and other
whistle blowers. The Association president argued, "If journalists
were to reveal sources we would turn into informers and those
individuals who give us tips would be implicated in defamation suits
or police persecutions."

-----------------------------------
Morales Sees a Conspiratorial Press
-----------------------------------

9. (SBU) Since his election, President Morales has had an
antagonistic relationship with the Bolivian press. Government
officials starting with the President frequently say that the media
is in the hands of powerful and hostile economic groups from the
right that defend their interests and privileges while opposing the
government's process of change. President Morales is correct that
wealthy families are the primary owners of Bolivia's media outlets
and that they generally have a conservative, pro-business outlook.
These families often do not share President Morales' political
views.

10. (SBU) Citing their wealth and privilege, President Morales
accuses the media families (and their employees) of conspiring
against his government: "The main adversaries of my presidency, of
my government, are certain communications media," he has often said.
Another of his favorite phrases is "Evo Morales' enemy number one
is the majority of the media," though he sometimes draws a
distinction: "Reporters sympathize with me, but the media owners are
aligned in a campaign against my government." Nevertheless, the
government has never provided proof that the media are conspiring to
topple him. "The administration believes that any criticism is part
of a conspiracy," says Pedro Rivero, executive director of Santa
Cruz's leading daily El Deber, and president of the National Press
Association. "There is freedom of expression in Bolivia, but the
President's constant verbal attacks send some worrying signals."

11. (SBU) Unlike past democratically elected presidents, President
Morales has made a practice of railing against the media during his
public events, accusing the media of distorting, manipulating
information, and lying. The President has declared publicly that
the press in Bolivia is free to express its views, but the press in
its stories about his administration is "reckless." President
Morales often asserts that the press misinforms, attacks, and wants
to humiliate him.

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Attacks on Journalists Rising
------------------------------

12. (SBU) The President's frequent media bashing and finger
pointing has taken its toll in more ways than one. Starting last
year, attacks on journalists and media outlets by angry citizens
have been increasingly frequent and fierce. UNITEL which is owned
by a Santa Cruz businessman and strong President Morales critic is
often the target of the President's rhetorical attacks which at
times have turned into physical attacks by his supporters. On
November 26, 2007, with a cry of "death to the media who lie!" and
"Death to UNITEL!" groups of pro-MAS individuals harassed, beat, and
kicked journalists during public demonstrations, and even smashed
their cameras. They also attacked media stations by throwing stones
and smashing windows. According to a Reporters Without Borders
report, there were 60 attacks and acts of aggression against
journalists during 2007. (See reftel.)

13. (SBU) In September 2006 President Morales called a press
conference to slam two media reports published in La Paz's leading
daily newspaper La Razon in which he accused the paper of "lies and
misinform[ing] constantly." On March 22, 2007, a group of
campesinos in La Paz took two La Razon journalists hostage. The
angry locals slashed the journalists' car tires, held them inside
their vehicle, and harassed and threatened them throughout the
night. The campesinos accused the reporters of lying constantly.
At dawn they let the reporters leave unharmed.

14. (SBU) March 2008 probably saw the worst attack yet when a mob
in the coca-growing Chapare region lynched three policemen and
almost killed two TV journalists who were covering the story at the
request of locals. Recognizing that film testimony of the torture
and massacre could be incriminating, one of the individuals involved
in the lynching of the policemen went after the journalists. The
thugs stole the reporters' cameras and beat them badly. The
reporters themselves barely escaped from being lynched. People in
the mob claimed that they were from the MAS, and stated that they
were in power now and that nobody could stop them.

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Comment
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15. (SBU) Reporters are beginning to voice their concerns that it
is difficult and at times unsafe to exercise their profession.
While supporters of the government are not the only ones to attack
the press corps -- at times pro-opposition thugs attack members of
the government-backed media -- it is the government's responsibility
to guarantee freedom of expression. For President Morales, any
criticism of his "project for change" represents a political agenda,
an agenda that must be stopped regardless of its impact on the right
to free speech. That said, the media continue to investigate and
report on government corruption, mishandling of the economy and
political missteps by the Morales Administration, and there is no
shortage of media stories critical of the President. End Comment.

© Scoop Media

 
 
 
 
 
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