The press freedom situation deteriorated markedly during the events which led to the departure of President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. His replacement by Vice-President Carlos Mesa restored calm, both for the country and the press.
The Bolivian press in 2003 suffered above all from the serious political crisis which ended with the President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada’s resignation on 17 October. Physical attacks against journalists increased at the start of February, when the first demonstrations against the government’s economic policies broke out. Relations between the president and the press deteriorated steadily thereafter.
Journalists’ unions accused the government of assigning state advertising in a discriminatory manner. A journalist with the TV channel Unitel accused presidential spokesman Carlos Sánchez Berzain of applying pressure to obtain his dismissal because of what he had reported. Also, journalists did not appreciate being filmed during a ceremony at the defence ministry.
The situation got much worse for the press in mid-October, when the authorities began cracking down much harder on demonstrations. Telephone threats, confiscation of newspapers from news stands, transmitters blown up, journalists fired on, phone lines cut, pressure on the state-owned media - these press freedom violations were above all blamed on the military intelligence services. But some of the physical attacks came from demonstrators.
The crisis was set off by an imminent government decision to export natural gas via Chile, with which Bolivia fought a war at the end of the 19th century and thereby lost its access to the sea. President Sánchez finally resigned after five days of violence that left 68 dead. Although in exile in the United States, he could still be prosecuted in Bolivia. He was succeeded by Vice-President Carlos Mesa, who immediately shelved the gas export plans, and thus managed to restore calm.
17 journalists physically attacked
La Paz police used teargas on Jorge Landaeta, a photographer with the Cochabamba-based daily Los Tiempos, on 21 January when he took photos of a demonstrator who had been hit in the face by a shot fired by police. The next day, police dispersed a demonstration called by press and journalists’ organisations to protest against the police treatment of Landaeta.
Toribio Kanki of the TV channel Unitel and Javier Pasten, a contributor to the radio station Sistema Cristiano de Comunicaciones, sustained bullet injuries while covering violent clashes between demonstrators and the army on 12 February. The same day, Gonzalo Rivera of Unitel and Canal 5-Bolivisión TV cameraman Fernando Ormachea were hit by demonstrators who tried to steal their equipment. The next day, Juan José Torrejón of the daily La Prensa was injured by a detonating teargas grenade during clashes between the army and striking policemen, who were joined protesters opposed to a new tax. These riots left a toll of 30 dead and about 100 injured.
Reynaldo Saconeta, a photographer with the daily El Diario, Nicolás Quinteros, a photographer with the daily La Razón, and Johnny Salazar Socpaza, a reporter with La Razón, were attacked in the town of El Alto by a crowd of protesting residents who thought the media’s coverage of their movement was very negative. The three journalists had gone to verify whether the road leading to two other towns was still open.
Martín Alípaz of the Spanish news agency EFE, Luis Eduardo Galdieri of the US news agency Associated Press, and Carlos Barria of the British news agency Reuters, together with a cameraman with the Spanish television channel TVE, were the target of shots fired by an army tank on 12 October in the town of El Alto. They were covering a crackdown by the security forces on an anti-government demonstration. Alípaz said the soldiers could see they had cameras and had deliberately targeted them.
Carlos Colque Muriel, a correspondent for the radio network Educación Radiofónica de Bolivia (Erbol) in Patacamaya (about 100 km south of La Paz), was hit in the back by a rubber bullet fired by a soldier while Colque was covering clashes between miners and security forces on 15 October. An army lieutenant-colonel had just ordered Colque to leave.
Eduardo Pinzón, a cameraman with Televisión Espańola of Spain, was attacked on 15 October by activists of the opposition Movement toward Socialism (MAS).
Cameraman Gustavo Canedo of the TV network Asociación de Teledifusoras de Bolivia (ATB), photographer Juan Carlos Rocha Chavarria of the newspaper Opinión and photographer Fernando Cartagena of the daily La Razón were hit by security forces on 24 November while covering the eviction of members of a movement of homeless people from a building belonging to the National Institute of Agrarian Reform (INRA). The activists were demanding the INRA director’s resignation and land for 1,500 families.
Harassment and obstruction
TV channels Canal 7 and Canal 5-Bolivisión and radio station Radio Fides suspended broadcasting for security reasons on the evening of 12 February because of violent clashes between army and striking policemen, who had been joined by demonstrators opposed to the government’s economic policies. The three stations resumed broadcasting in the course of the next day.
Journalists who went to the swearing-in of the new defence minister on 8 August were filmed and photographed by presumed military intelligence officials on the order of the person in charge of armed forces public relations.
A home-made explosive device went off at dawn on 10 August outside the home of Nicolás Fernández of the La Paz-based daily La Prensa without causing significant damage. In the preceding weeks, he had written several investigative pieces about alleged financial irregularities and abuse of authority by the military. He received protection from the authorities.
The Bolivian Confederation of Press Workers on 3 October accused intelligence agents of taking photographs of journalists covering a demonstration earlier that day in Oruro (200 km south of La Paz). The journalists had viewed this as an act of intimidation.
Cochabamba-based Radio Pio XII and three radio stations based in El Alto and La Paz - Erbol, Radio Pachamama and Celestial - received many threats from 12 to 13 October. Some of the staff suspected that military intelligence services were responsible.
Amid violent protests against the government, an explosion on 15 October wrecked a transmitter that serviced Radio Pio XII, a Catholic radio station based in Oruro (200 km south of La Paz), and the TV station Televisión Universitaria. The radio station’s staff said two hooded men overpowered the caretaker and placed an explosive charge on the antenna. Government officials had previously criticised the station for its coverage of the crackdown on demonstrations. The two stations were temporarily unable to broadcast.
Unidentified persons on 15 October either bought or confiscated a large part of that day’s issues of the daily El Diario and the weekly Pulso. The first had a front-page editorial supporting calls for the president’s resignation, while the second reported that US embassy military experts were advising the Bolivian armed forces on how to handle the crackdown on protests. The two newspapers suspected that the seizure was ordered by the government.
Monica Medina, the head of the TV station Radio Televisión Popular (RTP), reported on 15 October that her phone lines had been cut. A new line was immediately installed. The station was critical of the government and had reportedly received anonymous threats that it would be attacked or its journalists would be targeted on the street if it remained on the air.
The pro-opposition TV station Cadena A also reported on 15 October that it was receiving threats from army personnel. Its programming was briefly suspended and then resumed with a message from station director Amalia Pando saying she supported her staff in the face of external threats, without explaining what they were.
Walter Chávez, the editor of the Bolivian edition of the French monthly Le Monde Diplomatique and the bimonthly El Juguete Rabioso, on 15 October accused intelligence agents of harassing him in La Paz. He said he been forced to suspend a special issue due out the next day in which the newspaper was going to come out in favour of the president’s resignation.