The media seemed to be heading towards polarisation in 2007 along with the country itself and about 60 physical attacks on journalists and a dozen on media premises were recorded during the year. President Evo Morales’ constitutional reform plan sparked fierce reaction from the opposition, especially in the provinces controlled by his opponents. Both the publicly and privately-owned media become targets in the political crisis.
Bolivia is chronically unstable, with more than 150 coups d’etat since the independence, and no president in recent years has managed to complete his term. President Evo Morales, the country’s first indigenous head of state, hemmed in by an intransigent opposition, said in December 2007 he would hold a referendum in 2008 to determine whether he should step down. The condition is that the nine provincial governors (including the six from the opposition) will do the same.
But no easy solution is in view because of the secessionist intentions of the country’s four richest provinces - Santa Cruz, Tarija, Pando and Beni. The adoption by the constituent assembly of a new constitution (which must also be approved in a 2008 referendum) in the southern city of Sucre on 24 November in the absence of the opposition increased tension further. The media is a special target in the conflict and many journalists have been physically attacked and threatened by supporters of one side or the other.
The media on the frontline
Violence began on 8 January when coca producers in Morales’ native region of Cochabamba demonstrated against the secessionist intentions of local governor Manfred Reyes Villa. Eight journalists were injured. Jorge Abregó, photographer for the Fides news agency, Efraín Muñoz, of the Bolivian news agency ABI, and Efraín Gutiérrez, of the radio station La Chinawa, were injured in police charges while others, such as the crew of the privately-owned TV station Univalle Visión, were set upon by the demonstrators.
The attacks on the media increased as the November constituent assembly vote approached, especially in Santa Cruz province, the biggest opposition stronghold. Two journalists from the regional daily El Mundo were beaten on 28 August in Santa Cruz by demonstrators protesting against an opposition-called strike in the six opposition-run provinces. Journalists from TV stations Canal 7 TVB and Red Uno and an EFE news agency photographer were also threatened in Santa Cruz by a extreme secessionist group, the Unión Juvenil Cruceñista, which had earlier attacked pro-government media offices. Six journalists were injured in a large-scale police and army operation to end the occupation of Santa Cruz airport on 18 and 19 October. Regional media workers demonstrated on 19 October for the right to do their job freely and in safety. Meanwhile in Sucre, constitutional reform opponents physically attacked two journalists from the pro-government stations Televisión Bolivia and Radio Red Patria Nueva, along with a freelance photographer.
The adoption of the new constitution by the constituent assembly set off rioting in Sucre and La Paz. The Sucre-based Catholic Church’s educational radio station ACLO, which is pro-government and broadcasts partly in the Indian language, Quechua, was forced to suspend broadcasting after threats from the Unión Juvenil Cruceñista. Three of the station’s journalists - Grover Alejandro Pilco, Franz Garcia and Johnnatan Condori - were forced to flee the city.
Two days after the vote, government supporters attacked the La Paz offices of the privately-owned TV stations ATB (owned by the Spanish media group Prisa), PAT and UNITEL (belonging to Santa Cruz businessmen) and those of Radio Fides and Radio Panamericana. Sacha Llorenti, deputy minister for social movements, tried to calm the rioters. Tension eased at the end of the year and the media-owners’ association ANP made a new offer of dialogue to the government and other parties in the conflict.