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Bolivia25 October 2007

Journalists continue to be victims of political tension : six injured in retaking of Santa Cruz airport

Reporters Without Borders voiced concern today about physical attacks on six journalists at Viru Viru airport in the eastern department of Santa Cruz during an operation on 18 and 19 October by police and troops to oust demonstrators in the pay of the Santa Cruz government. Public and privately-owned media were again the victims of political tension, which is growing in violence, especially in Santa Cruz.

“Journalists have again been caught in the crossfire in clashes between supporters of the central government and radical opposition activists in the provinces who want independence,” the press freedom organisation said.

“We appeal to both government and opposition representatives to ensure respect for state and privately-owned media by appealing to their activists for calm,” Reporters Without Borders added. “A dialogue needs to get underway at the highest level between President Evo Morales’ administration and the departmental authorities.”

The major operation by 600 air force troops and 60 police officers on 18 and 19 October to retake control of the Santa Cruz airport, in which six journalists were injured, was launched without judicial approval, Reporters Without Borders has been told. It highlights the tension between La Paz and the regional government, led by a Civic Committee consisting mostly of local businessmen. The conflict erupted after the departmental government refused to hand over the taxes collected from the airlines operating in Viru Viru.

The worst-injured journalist was Uriel Gutiérrez of the TV station Sitel, who was choked and poisoned by tear-gas, and then beaten and trampled by troops during a clash with demonstrators trying to enter the airport. He had to be rushed to hospital with convulsions and difficulty breathing.

Analía Alvarez of the daily La Estrella del Oriente was beaten with a baton as well as being kicked and punched, and sustained contusions to the arms and legs. “They pushed me against a rock and I have bruises and scratches,” she told Reporters Without Borders. “We just wanted to get out of the way of the skirmish but the troops indicated they were going to carry out arrests and attack us.”

Aydeé Rojas of the daily El Nuevo Día sustained a minor arm injury, as did Christian Peña y Lillo of the newspaper El Deber. A journalist with Activa TV and woman reporter working for Periodistas Asociados de Televisión (PAT), another TV station, were also roughed up during the operation.

The Santa Cruz journalists staged a demonstration the next morning in protest against these attacks. Local leaders of the Federation of Press Workers condemned the behaviour of the troops and police as well as the overall increase in violence against journalists. In a statement, they declared a “state of emergency” and called on the government, security forces, political parties, civil society organisations and trade unions of all tendencies to respect the press as an essential tool for “consolidating democracy.”

In the cental city of Sucre, which is the constitutional capital (but not the seat of government), journalists employed by public media have complained of being the target of threats and violence by people opposed to the constitutional reform process launched by the government in August 2006. Nancy Vacaflor, the correspondent of the radio educational network Erbol, said three journalists with Televisión Bolivia and Radio Red Patria Nueva were recently “threatened with lynching” and freelance photographer Jonathan Condori was physically attacked.

Bolivia fell from 16th to 68th place in this year’s Reporters Without Borders world press freedom index because of the surge in violence against the press in a generally fraught political climate, especially in the four departments that want autonomy or independence - Santa Cruz, Tarija, Pando and Beni. In Santa Cruz, the Unión Juvenil Cruceñista, a radical opposition group, has claimed several attempted bombings and attacks on public media.

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