The Miami Herald
Wed, May 6, 2009

Standoff between Evo Morales, Bolivian media outlets escalates

Special to The Miami Herald

With some newspapers and broadcast outlets relentlessly exposing the government's shortcomings, President Evo Morales and his supporters say the privately-owned media have sided with his opponents.

The government has filed criminal charges against a major La Paz newspaper over corruption-related headlines, created a new state-controlled television network and newspaper and some allege is intimidating those who print or broadcast news the government deems unpleasant.

Since January, Morales has refused to speak with the local media. Attendance at press conferences is limited to the international press corps, and when a formal government announcement is made, it is issued via the government news agency.

The president, vice president and top cabinet members make no effort to hide their disdain for the independent media, or their belief that newspaper, TV and radio reporters and their editors are controlled by private-sector interests ideologically opposed to the administration's socialist agenda.

''Some media owners manipulate the press, a public service, for their own personal interests. They aren't always run capably or with impartiality,'' Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera said last month after the government brought criminal charges against La Paz's La Prensa newspaper.

The La Prensa case caused a storm of protest from the country's media. Even before the charges were filed, the president had angrily berated a La Prensa reporter during a presidential news conference over a headline in that day's newspaper that read, 'Evo negotiated `green light' with smugglers.'' He demanded to know the source of the story.

''It was frightening. It was an affront,'' said La Prensa's editor, Carlos Morales (no relation).

Shortly afterwards, the president said Bolivia's press wasn't ''free'' but ''libertine,'' and that it harms people without giving them a chance to respond. La Prensa is part of the largest private chain of newspapers in Bolivia, Grupo Lider. Owned by two well-known families, the group publishes La Prensa in La Paz, Los Tiempos in Cochabamba, El Deber in Santa Cruz and others. Together they make up the nation's top independent dailies.


La Prensa and other newspapers have been filled in recent months with stories about alleged government corruption, tainting an administration that came to power three years ago promising to end public corruption.

In recent week, Morales, the editor, his family and other La Prensa reporters have received telephoned death threats telling them to stop publishing such stories. While there is no evidence that those calls came from government officials, Morales believes they are inspired by the government's anti-media message and are carried out by followers of the president to intimidate and silence the press.

''This is part of a government offensive to corner any media that are critical of the government,'' he said. ``It is without precedent in our democracy.''

Bolivia has a long history of autocratic regimes, including harsh military dictatorships. That ended when the military returned to their barracks in 1982. Press controls have been part of many past regimes' governing strategy, but the media had been largely free during the past 27 years to report the news as they see it.


In the past year, however, reporters and editors have been attacked by mobs loyal to both the Morales government and, in the lowlands department of Santa Cruz, the government's opponents. Some have had their equipment destroyed or damaged, and several have been injured. In at least one case, according to witnesses, police stood by while the attack occurred.

''The situation is very bad,'' said Juan Javier Zevallos, a former correspondent for the Reuters news agency in Latin America and Europe, and now executive director of Bolivia's National Press Association, which has defended the media's right to operate freely in Bolivia.

The government has 'accused us of being `the enemy,' '' said Zevallos. Part of the government's strategy is to control the flow of information, said Zevallos. The state-run television and Patria Nueva radio network have repeaters throughout the country. And in January, the government launched a new newspaper, Cambio.

Bolivian journalists, meanwhile, are reaching outside the country for help.

At the Inter-American Press Association annual meeting in Paraguay in February, the Bolivian National Press Association reported 46 cases of physical attacks, harassment and verbal assaults on its members and warned that the free press was under assault in Bolivia. Their report was incorporated into IAPA's annual state-of-the-press update.

President Morales reacted vehemently, saying that he and other government officials, not the press, were the victims of media and opposition persecution. He invited the IAPA to send a representative to Bolivia to investigate.

IAPA President Enrique Santos Calderon formally accepted Morales's invitation and announced that a delegation of international journalists would visit the country. No date has been set for that visit.