Voicing growing concern about the safety of Bolivian journalists, Reporters Without Borders called today for the punishment of the policemen and peasants responsible for attacking and injuring eight journalists, three of them seriously, during a violent demonstration on 8 January in the central city of Cochabamba.
“The violence in Cochabamba is the latest example of a growing wave of attacks on the Bolivian media - both state and privately-owned - as the country plunges deeper into an institutional crisis that began in the last quarter of 2006,” the press freedom organisation said.
“We urge the authorities to investigate these attacks and quickly punish those responsible, otherwise the press will pay dearly for the dangerous political climate,” Reporters Without Borders added. “We reiterate our support for all Bolivian journalists regardless of their political views, and we call on the government and opposition to work together to restore peace in the streets.”
The 8 January protest in the city of Cochabamba was staged by peasants from the nearby coca-growing region from which President Evo Morales comes. Its target was the autonomist ambitions of the provincial governor, Manfred Reyes Villa, an enemy of the Morales administration. The violence broke out when the demonstrators tried to storm the governor’s offices.
In the ensuing clashes between the coca growers and the police, photographer Jorge Abregó of the news agency Fides was injured in the ear and left side by the explosion of a teargas grenade and by stones that were being thrown. A grenade struck reporter Efraín Muñoz of the Agencia Boliviana de Información (ABI) in the leg. Noe Portugal, a photographer with the regional daily Los Tiempos, was hit in the face, arm and left side by small-calibre bullets.
Efraín Gutiérrez of radio La Chinawa was badly beaten by employees of the prefect’s office and by plain-clothes policemen.
Coca-growers were responsible for the injuries sustained by three members of a TV crew from the privately-owned channel Univalle Televisión. Reporter Maria Elena Soria and soundman Víctor Cabezas were punched. Cameraman Alfredo Orellana’s camera was snatched from him and, after being knocked to the ground, his head was cut open by a flying stone.
Gutiérrez, Cabezas and Orellana were reportedly in a serious condition. Freelance photographer Raúl Guevara sustained minor injuries and his equipment was damaged.