As Bolivia prepares for a 25 January referendum on a new constitution that President Evo Morales has sought from the time he took office in January 2006, Reporters Without Borders appeals to politicians and news media to act with responsibility. Ever since the constituent assembly began its work in August 2006, the call for a new constitution has fuelled political violence and polarisation, in which both state and privately-owned media and their staff have been protagonists and victims.
The welcome intercession of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) in September and the consensus reached a month later between the government and the main opposition party (Podemos) have partially checked a political crisis that has undermined press freedom and the safety of journalists.
But the adoption of a new constitution will not suffice to resolve the past antagonisms or prevent future abuses. Reporters Without Borders is therefore addressing this message to Bolivia's citizens, leaders and news media.
Against hate media
An organisation that defends press freedom and free expression, Reporters Without Borders believes it has a duty to denounce the use of news media to incite racism, violence or murder. It was for this reason that the organisation condemned the behaviour of Jorge Melgar Quete, who was arrested on 13 October in Riberalta, in the northeastern department of Beni.
Melgar's commentaries on Beni's Canal 18 TV station were just hate-filled rants against the indigenous origins of many Bolivians and the country's democratically-elected president. In an opinion piece published in the dailies La Razón and La Prensa on 21 October, Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Jean-François Julliard voiced outrage at the fact that the media were being used to express such views.
For the same reason, as a warning, we are publishing on our website passages from “Nuestra Palabra”, a hate programme hosted by lawyer Luis Arturo Mendivil on Radio Oriental, a station he owns in the eastern city of Santa Cruz. Mendivil's radio editorials glorify the Unión Juvenil Cruceñista, a radical Santa Cruz-based group that has carried out repeated physical attacks on state media such as Canal 7 TV and the Red Patria Nueva radio network because of their perceived support for the central government in La Paz.
Against the “media war”
The prefects of four departments that are seeking autonomy - Rubén Costas of the eastern department of Santa Cruz, Savina Cuéllar of the southern department of Chuquisaca, Mario Cossío of the southern department of Tarija and Ernesto Suárez of the northern department of Beni - reiterated their opposition to the new constitution on 13 January. That is of course their democratic right. But they have a duty to oppose any use of the media to incite hate or violence on their behalf, or any physical attack on media or journalists they do not like.
The authorities and activists who support the government or the ruling coalition, such as La Paz's Popular Civic Committee, must also respect this principle as regards the privately-owned media and those media perceived as pro-opposition. Comments by President Morales questioning the “dignity” of journalists elicited heated protests by journalists in La Paz on 15 December.
Finally, the current development of new state-owned media, including a daily newspaper, has prompted fears of the emergence of a government-controlled press. Public media should not be used by governments to respond in kind to the attacks coming from part of the opposition press. But there is nothing illegitimate about the development of state media as long as their editorial independence is guaranteed.
The dramatic surge in threats and physical attacks on the press during the political crisis caused Bolivia to plummet to 115th position (out of 173 countries) in the 2008 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index - a fall of 47 places from its ranking in the 2007 index. A significant factor in this fall was the murder on 29 March 2008 of Carlos Quispe Quispe, 31, a journalist employed by Radio Municipal Pucarani (in La Paz department).
The trial of his alleged murderers has been postponed several times and has still not taken place. Similarly, Army 2nd. Lt. George Peter Nava Zurita and 11 other people have never been brought to trial after being charged with “terrorism” for the bombing of privately-owned TV station Canal 4-Unitel on 21 June 2008 in Yacuiba, in Tarija department. And no one has been brought to trial for the attacks on Canal 7 and Red Patria Nueva in Santa Cruz.
So far, the only person to be sanctioned for physical attacks on the press is Adolfo Cerrudo, the head of La Paz's Popular Civic Committee, who has been implicated in several incidents including threatening to rape a woman journalist employed by the daily La Razón in March 2008. Cerrudo was belatedly placed under house arrest on 14 November.
The protection of civil liberties and the safety of journalists become empty words when violations are left unpunished. Justice should not be a question of ideology or political affiliation. And in this case it requires a dialogue between the government, the entire political class and journalists' representatives. Such a dialogue has yet to take place.
It is not the job of Reporters Without Borders to evaluate of the entire constitution. That is the Bolivian people's sovereign right in the referendum. There was, however, a controversy about article 108.2, which says: “Information and opinions expressed in the communications media must respect the principles of truth and responsibility.” At the request of six journalists' organisations, a reference to media “self-regulation” was added to this article in October. Reporters Without Borders believes that such self-regulation is precisely what is entailed by media responsibility.
Article 106.1 affirms “the right to communication and the right to information,” while 106.2 affirms “the freedoms of expression, opinion and information and the right to freely express ideas by any means of dissemination without prior censorship.” Finally, article 107.3 says “the media will not be able, directly or indirectly, to form monopolies or oligopolies” and commits the state not only to recognising but also to “promoting the creation of community media with equal conditions and opportunities.”
The constitution complies with the inter-American system's legal requirements and precedents but it does not settle the issue of how broadcast frequencies are allocated or the issue of access to government information, which is the subject of a much-discussed bill. One must be clear about this. Reporters Without Borders believes that a resumption of the “media war” would be prevented if respect for a single principle were made paramount - the principle of diversity of opinion and the free flow of ideas in all the media, whatever their tendency. The referendum campaign offers an excellent opportunity to show such respect.