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Bolivia15 September 2008

Reporters Without Borders urges president and opposition prefects to restore calm after ten days of severe violence

Mr. Evo Morales Ayma, president of Bolivia

Rubén Costas, prefect of Santa Cruz department
Leopoldo Fernández, prefect of Pando department
Ernesto Suárez, prefect of Beni department
Mario Cossío, prefect of Tarija department

Dear Mr President, Sirs,

Reporters Without Borders, a worldwide organisation that defends press freedom, is pleased to note that President Evo Morales’ offer of talks has finally been accepted by opposition prefects after ten days of violence that has left at least 20 dead in the departments calling for autonomy and led to martial law being declared in Cobija, capital of Pando.

This wave of clashes, following earlier outbreaks, has badly hit the press, particularly public and community media. The worst incidents have been the torching of state-run Canal 7-Televisión Boliviana, in Santa Cruz on 9 September by members of The Santa Cruz Youth Union (UJC), the abduction on 12 September, of Juan Domingo Yañique, of radio Red Patria Nueva by militants of the Beni civic committee and gunshot wounds suffered by Claudia Méndez, of privately-owned Red PAT, during a military operation in Cobija.

Some media, such as Radio Frontera de Cobija (linked to the Erbol education network), decided to suspend broadcasts because of a lack of minimum safety guarantees for journalists.

The press is clearly not the only victim of a political conflict, for which it must accept a share in the blame. The media has sometimes been party in its own way to a polarisation that has been turned against it, whether it is state-run or seen as pro-government, or private and viewed as supporting the opposition. However, as we have frequently said, the survival of a pluralist press - that plays a vital role in a democracy - has been compromised in a context that the political class has not known how to or wanted to curb.

Abuses against the media by some militants belonging to separatist civil committee or by the highly dangerous Santa Cruz Youth Union, have not prompted the slightest repudiation nor appropriate reaction from the prefects who are nevertheless calling for greater powers within their departments.

The government, for its part, has shown lack of firmness in the face of excesses by some of its most radical supporters. The dialogue which is beginning between you must lead to a clear joint will to save public freedoms. This must include a halt to exposing the media to public condemnation and to prevent attacks from within your own ranks against the right to inform the public.

We are aware that the situation cannot be resolved if each side to the conflict fails to recognised the legitimacy of the other side. The autonomy claimed by some departments cannot be used a priori to disqualify a head of state democratically elected and confirmed in his post in the 10 August recall referendum. This same poll also allowed prefects to retain their positions. We hope that a political agreement will become part of the new Constitution sought by President Evo Morales, the principle of which is the source of the conflict. Finally, we hope that the meeting today of the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) in Santiago du Chili, will decisively contribute to the restoration of peace and public freedoms in Bolivia.

Yours sincerely,

Robert Ménard
Secretary General

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in the annual report
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