Reporters Without Borders is stunned by President Evo Morales’ comments on 30 January, six days after it was revealed that 18 politicians and a journalist had been illegally spied on. They contradict the reassuring statements about press freedom previously made by Ivan Canelas, deputy of the ruling Movement to Socialism (MAS).
“The spying scandal must not exacerbate a fraught political climate that is causing real difficulties for news media of all tendencies,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The opposition is wrong to encourage suspicion that the president is to blame for the spying. The president is wrong to try to defend himself by accusing all the media of spying on him. These accusations are all the more surprising as Canelas, the president’s ally, has been quick to condemn attacks on the press.”
The press freedom organisation added: “This tension can be avoided, but it means the media must be given real guarantees about the confidentiality of their sources, something that is vital for journalism. Consultations have already taken place between the media and the government on this subject. We reiterate our commitment to promote dialogue.”
On 30 January, President Morales accused the media of “paying” members of his personal bodyguard to locate and follow him. He said be felt “spied on” by journalists. His comments were in response to the revelations that 18 politicians, including two parliamentarians from his own party, and pro-opposition journalist Juan José Espada of the privately-owned TV channel Unitel, had been illegally spied on. Morales denied any role in the spying, which the police department previously blamed on members of the police intelligence service.
The spying scandal has been referred to parliament. Canelas, a former journalist who is now deputy of MAS, said he “personally asked the public prosecutor’s office to open an investigation to establish who is responsible for violence and attacks on journalists, so that they are punished.” The parliamentary leader of MAS, César Navarro, has also defended the media’s right to express their views.
There is continuing concern in the media about the intention to “make news and information transparent and to lift the right to confidentiality” which Morales expressed in his message to parliament on 22 January. The National Press Association said yesterday that the aim was to undermine the confidentiality of sources and that this posed “a grave threat to free expression and press freedom and society’s right to be properly informed.”
28.01.08 - Media urged not to allow spying on journalist to sabotage dialogue with government
Reporters Without Borders is dismayed by last week’s revelation that the police department’s intelligence service has been involved in unauthorised spying on politicians and Juan José Espada, the news director of the privately-owned TV channel Unitel, and hopes this will not affect the dialogue between the government and media that began after the violence against the press at the height of last year’s political crisis.
The press freedom organisation stresses that journalists must be able to enjoy all the guarantees of professional secrecy they need in order to do their job properly.
“We welcome the government’s swift reaction to the news of this spying, in which sectors of the police appear to have overstepped the limits of their duties.” Reporters Without Borders said. “The investigation into the spying on Espada must now establish whether the aim was to identify his sources. If this turns out to be the case, it would constitute a grave violation of press freedom, which depends on professional secrecy. We also want to know whether other journalists were spied on.”
The organisation added: “These revelations should nonetheless not be used as an argument for reviving tension between the media and the political class or for polarising the media. There is a greater need that ever to pursue the dialogue initiated between the government and media representatives after last year’s violent protests and to contribute to social peace, just as the dialogue between the central government and the opposition state governors must continue.”
The domestic espionage scandal broke on 24 January when the privately-owned TV channels Cadena A, ATB, PAT and Unitel and the national dailies La Razón and El Nuevo Dia each reported receiving a CD-ROM containing a dozen or so case files, about 40 memos and more than 400 photos revealing spying carried out by the national police intelligence service at the end of last year without any control from above.
A total of 18 politicians were among the targets of the spying, including former president Jorge Quiroga, who heads the opposition Podemos party, and four provincial governors opposed to President Evo Morales. They also included Senate speaker Oscar Ortiz and two parliamentary representatives of the ruling Movement to Socialism (MAS), Gustavo Torrico and Guido Guardia. And they included Espada, who was Unitel’s joint news director in La Paz at the time although he is now based in Santa Cruz. Relations between Unitel and the government have been tense for some time.
In the absence of President Morales, who was visiting Argentina, Vice-President Alvaro Garcia ordered the national police commander, Gen. Miguel Vásquez, on 25 January to provide him with full information about the spying. Gen. Vásquez publicly held the intelligence service responsible and promised that “every guarantee” would be given to the press.
The drafting of a new constitution has been very divisive and has caused a national political crisis in which both pro-government and opposition media were the targets of threats and violence last year. So far this year, the government and opposition have been trying to defuse the tension.
Nonetheless, the La Paz headquarters of PAT was slightly damaged in an attack on 19 January, as was ATB’s headquarters on 25 January. Several newspaper also reported that René Fernández of Radio Cadena Nacional was physically attacked on 25 January in La Paz and warned to reveal nothing about the spying, which he has been investigating.
The media are also concerned about possibly changes to legislation concerning the confidentiality of journalists’ sources.