Reporters Without Borders today called on President Sánchez de Lozada to punish those responsible for a wave of threats and violence against the news media that has accompanied a government crackdown on opposition protests in Bolivia.
"The army or intelligence services have been implicated in attacks on the press, and we call for investigations into the various cases so that those responsible can be punished," Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard said in letter to the president.
"We also call on you to give very clear instructions to the different branches of the state to respect press freedom, without awaiting the results of the investigations," he added.
An explosion on 15 October wrecked a transmitter that serviced Radio Pio XII, a Catholic radio station based in Oruro (200 km south of La Paz), and the TV station Televisión Universitaria. Both are now unable to broadcast. The radio station’s managers said two hooded men overpowered the caretaker and placed an explosive charge on the antenna. Government officials had previously criticised the station for its coverage of the crackdown.
During the preceding three days, many threats had also been received by Radio Pio XII in Cochabamba (south-east of La Paz), the Erbol (Educación Radiofónica de Bolivia) network of radio stations, and Radio Pachamama and Radio Celestial, based in El Alto and La Paz.
Intelligence agents on 15 October confiscated that day’s issues of the daily El Diario and the weekly Pulso. The first had a front-page editorial supporting calls for the president’s resignation, while the second reported that US embassy military experts were advising the Bolivian armed forces on how to handle the crackdown on protests.
Monica Medina, the head of the TV station Radio Televisión Popular (RTP), reported on 15 October that her phone lines had been cut. RTP’s news director, Eduardo Godoy, said a new line was immediately installed. The station is critical of the government and had reportedly received anonymous threats that it would be attacked or its journalists would be targeted on the street if it remained on the air.
The pro-opposition TV station Cadena A also reported getting threats from army personnel. Its programming was briefly suspended on 15 October and was replaced by music. Programmes resumed with a message from station director Amalia Pando saying she supported her staff in the face of external threats, without explaining what they were. Agence France-Presse quoted labour minister Adalberto Kuajara as saying there had been a "misunderstanding" and that the government respected press freedom.
Walter Chávez, editor of the Bolivian edition of the French monthly Le Monde Diplomatique and the bimonthly El Juguete Rabioso, on 15 October accused intelligence agents of harassing him in La Paz. He said he had received many telephone threats and had been forced to suspend a special issue due out the next day in which the newspaper was going to take a position on the president’s resignation.
Carlos Colque, the Erbol radio network’s correspondent in Patacamaya (about 100 km south of La Paz), was hit in the back by a rubber bullet fired by a soldier just after being threatened by an army lieutenant-colonel.
Bolivia has been gripped by serious unrest in the past three weeks. Trade union and indigenous leaders have called for a general strike in protest against a plan to export Bolivia’s natural gas through neighbouring Chile. El Alto, 15 km from La Paz, has been the focus of the unrest in the past few days. About 80 people have reportedly been killed in clashes with security forces since the crisis began.