13 September 2013
69th General AssemblyDenver, ColoradoOctober 18 – 22, 2013
The government continues to pursue its strategy of implementing a new media paradigm that is strictly enforced, systematically regulated, and amply financed. This strategy is aimed at further smothering independent media outlets, which now account for a mere 10 percent of all outlets. This percentage was not pulled from nowhere. President Evo Morales, in statements to the press on September 24, stated that among media outlets “there now remain 10 or 20 percent in the opposition”—an implicit admission of government control over most private media outlets. Various methods are used to exert this control. Media outlets and journalists have frequently been targeted in verbal assaults and mischaracterized as playing a political role, especially in statements by President Morales; by Juan Ramón Quintana, minister of the Office of the President; and by other high-ranking officials. On August 23, this systematic pattern of verbal assaults and extremely hostile rhetoric forced the resignation of Raúl Peñaranda, editor of Página Siete newspaper in La Paz. Peñaranda explained that he resigned to protect the newspaper—which he founded—from the government’s attacks branding it as “pro-Chile” on the grounds that another of the newspaper’s owners is related to a member of the Chilean parliament. In the past two years, Página Siete has borne the brunt of constant verbal assaults from Quintana, who accused the newspaper of taking a pro-Chile stance in the dispute over Bolivia’s access to the sea. Back in 2012, the same newspaper, along with El Diario newspaper and the Fides News Agency, were taken to court for alleged discrimination against President Morales. The case against the three media outlets remains pending, even though linguists and legal experts agree that the case is groundless. In its campaign against Página Siete, the government seized on a reporting error that was duly acknowledged in a public apology. Quintana, the minister of the Office of the President, accused the newspaper of trying to strain the relationship between the government and the Catholic hierarchy by misreporting on an alleged excommunication of four ministers. This strategy of control was furthered by a discriminatory increase in alleged tax debts. Various media outlets, all of which happen to be independent, were “visited” by inspectors from Bolivia’s tax agency. The most dramatic episode occurred on June 6, with the seizure of assets from El Diario, a newspaper founded over a hundred years ago. The newspaper’s executives say that much of the company’s debt has already been paid off in the form of surrendered property, but the tax authorities claim that the newspaper owes a heavy fine. Thus far the newspaper has been unable to reconcile its accounts with the tax authorities. Meanwhile, a warning emerged with reports that the administration is preparing to submit a law to support the auctioning of assets seized from companies whose tax debts remain unpaid. Another repressive tactic is the discretionary placement of government advertising in media outlets. On August 14, the newspaper El Deber denounced government reprisals against critical media outlets in the form of a reduction in government advertising. In the city of Tarija, in southern Bolivia, the departmental government openly and explicitly used a model contract that places advertising only in media outlets that refrain from criticizing regional government officials. On August 30, the National Press Association (ANP) denounced the use of advertising as blackmail, and revealed that journalist Julio Barragán was forced to discontinue his television talk show due to direct pressure from an official in the Tarija departmental government who is politically affiliated to the president’s party. In response to these abuses, journalists’ organizations are citing a law that regulates the use and placement of government advertising under the sole principle of equity. The administration acknowledged that it spent $21 million on propaganda and advertising in the first nine months of 2013, and much of this money was used to broadcast the public appearances of President Morales, as a form of early campaigning for the 2014 elections. According to independent reports, the state-controlled media aired an average of three hours per day of government propaganda disguised as reporting on the president’s actions. Financial forms of pressure on media outlets are also veiled by taxes such as the one that funds a life insurance program for media workers. This program is wholly financed by media companies but administered through a council with minimal representation from these companies: only one delegate for all private media outlets, compared to three from the government and three from the labor unions. This tax actually goes into fund that may be used for other purposes not necessarily beneficial to journalists, as stated by the law. Moreover, various aspects of the law are unconstitutional. The regulatory body for telecommunications reallocated radio frequencies to make room for stations friendly to the administration. This has led to technical difficulties for more than 300 private FM radio stations. This has proven to be the most effective method for silencing independent radio stations, virtually cutting them off from their audience as a result of the change in frequency. The ANP’s Monitoring Unit for Freedom of the Press and Freedom of Expression cited 15 incidents of physical and verbal assaults against media outlets and journalists by government officials and pro-government social organizations. This comes in addition to growing rumors about the purchase of media outlets by individuals close to the government, journalists who serve as propaganda agents, and others who appear to embrace independent journalism even as they distort the truth and incite sensationalism by pushing the independent media into mistakes, which then serve the government as fodder for its attacks.