The law against racism was approved by the senate on 8 October and was immediately promulgated by President Evo Morales. The senate adopted the lower house’s version of the law without any changes despite major protests by media and journalists’ organisations against two articles that make it an offence for the press to publish racist comments or statements that incite racism. The protests have continued since its promulgation.
Under article 16, news media can be fined or have their licence suspended if they “endorse or publish racist or discriminatory ideas.” Reporters Without Borders had recommended amending the article so that it would apply only to media “that explicitly defend racism or discrimination.”
Without such an amendment, it will now be up to the courts to distinguish carefully between media coverage of racist comments or activities, which is legitimate, and media involvement in promoting racism, which is not. The courts will also need to take care with enforcement of article 23, concerning journalists as individuals.
22.09.10 - Concern about article in proposed law against racism
Reporters Without Borders calls for an amendment to an article in the draft law against racism that was approved by Bolivia’s lower house on 10 September and is now being debated by the senate.
The bill’s proposed measures include the creation of a National Committee against Racism and all forms of Discrimination under the culture ministry’s supervision. Its members would include representatives of public institutions, human rights organisations and Bolivia’s indigenous, Afro-Bolivian and other communities.
There should be unanimity about this bill but it is meeting with distrust and even hostility from a significant part of the Bolivian press because of article 16, which says that “any media that endorses or publishes racist or discriminatory ideas will be liable to financial sanctions or the suspension of its operating licence, subject to regulation.” Article 23 also incorporates criminal code provisions regarding “crimes against human dignity.”
In a joint statement released two days after the lower house vote, the National Press Association (ANP), the National Association of Bolivian Journalists (ANPB) and the Association of Bolivian Radio Stations (ASBORA) claimed that the law would introduce “preventive censorship of the press, which would violate freedom of expression, regarded by international standards as a fundamental basis of democracy.” While stressing that “opposition to any racist or discriminatory practices” was already part of their code of professional conduct, they condemned “any form of direct or indirect preventive censorship against journalism.”
The country’s oldest daily, El Diario, went so far as to publish a front-page headline on 11 September saying: “The government is seeking pretexts to silence the media.” During a recent international conference attended by Reporters Without Borders, ANP president Juan Javier Zeballos said: “The law’s goal is noble, but what will be the fate of a news media that just reports a racist comment by a man in the street.”
In view of the media’s concerns, Reporters Without Borders takes the following position:
We support both the principle and the overall provisions of this proposed law. It is justified by the country’s history, in which the segregation of its indigenous and African communities was long the rule. The law is also understandable given the racist attacks, and the incitement to hatred and even murder - targeted at the indigenous population in general and President Evo Morales in particular - that were published by certain media at the height of the crisis in 2008.
At that time, we clearly condemned lawyer Luis Arturo Mendivil’s hate-filled editorials on Radio Oriental, the radio station he owns. Mendivil went so far as to physically attack Alfredo Carrión of the state-owned Red Patria Nueva when Carrión asked him about these diatribes last month.
A hate media is not a media. All it does is incite criminal activity. Article 16’s application would be justified in such circumstances, but only in those circumstances. A media cannot be accused of inciting racism or discrimination just for covering or reporting an event in which the protagonists were guilty of racist comments or behaviour. Criminal responsibility does not carry over to the media that describes criminal activity.
In order to ensure that implementation of the new law does not in any way endanger free expression and media freedom, Reporters Without Borders proposes that article 16 should be amended so that it is applicable only to media “that explicitly defend racism or discrimination.”