Another journalist flees Bolivia as organizations denounce hostility against the press in the country

After two Bolivian government officials made statements against Carlos Valverde, the journalist decided to leave the country for what he considered threats against him, according to what he told newspaper El Deber.

Valverde arrived in Argentina, but said he would not ask for asylum and would return to the country after the tense atmosphere had “decompressed.” The reporter noted that he would continue to publish his reports from Argentina, El Deber added.

In recent days, the Minister of the Presidency, Juan Ramón Quintana, and the Minister of Communication, Marianela Paco, attacked Valverde in separate statements and accused him of lying in his investigations dealing with the president of the country, Evo Morales, the journalist explained to the digital site Infobae.

Valverde was the journalist who reported about the birth certificate of an alleged son of President Morales with his former partner, Gabriela Zapata, according to BBC World. This document was part of a report by Valverde about alleged influence peddling to deliver lucrative contracts to a Chinese company for which Zapata was a commercial manager.

According to BBC World, Valverde showed the document in order to support his allegations that Morales’ government gave the contracts because of a familial relationship with Zapata.

However, months later, Valverde said the alleged son did not exist, BBC World reported. Yet, in a statement made to Infobae, he maintained the existence of a birth certificate allegedly signed by Morales.

Days after learning of Valverde’s exit from the country, Morales published the following on Twitter: “he who hides or escapes is a confessed criminal” and not a victim of political persecution, according to digital media outlet Opinión.

The Valverde case occurred days after journalist Wilson García Mérida, director of newspaper Sol de Pando, announced he had left the country due to an alleged complaint filed against him by minister Quintana for the crime of sedition, reported newspaper Página Siete.

García Mérida assured the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas via email that neither he nor his lawyer managed to gain access to the file against him, so, he said, he does not have knowledge of the details, evidence and charges against him.

He said that he does not know whether the accusation against him is related to allegations he had made about cases of alleged corruption that could involve Quintana. However, he added that these cases are dealt with by the Tribunal de Imprenta, a special court for journalists’ cases, and not by the ordinary courts.

The journalist assured the Knight Center that, as he did not have detailed information, he decided it was the best to leave the country taking into account that the crime of sedition implies “immediate jail [time]” even in the initial phase of the process.

These cases are taking place in an atmosphere of hostility against the press led by the country’s authorities, as denounced by Reporters Without Borders (RSF for its acronym in French). The organization said that this includes accusations, intimidation and threats of legal proceedings, among other acts.

For example, RSF recalled that on May 19, Quintana said there was a “cartel of lies” in the country formed by newspapers Erbol, El Deber and Página Siete, as well as news agency Fides.

According to the organization, these remarks came after parliamentarians asked about the alleged influence peddling in which Morales and his former partner were implicated. For Quintana, these media seek to destabilize the country through media scandals.

The National Press Association (ANP for its acronym in Spanish) of Bolivia also expressed its rejection of the official’s statements, endorsed the work done by the media and demanded respect for journalistic work.

“To say the media outlets and prominent and well-known journalists are organized with the purpose of destabilizing [the government] is an argument that falls under its fragility because of the prestige won by the worthy and recognized journalists,” the ANP said.

RSF also said that the reporters Amalia Pando, Raúl Peñaranda and Andrés Gómez “have been the targets of an all-out smear campaign and verbal attacks for several months.” It also recorded cases of attacks, restrictions on news coverage in previous months, as well as the announcement by an official to revise the Press Law.

“This climate of hostility towards the media is having a very negative impact on free expression and cannot go on,” said Emmanuel Colombié, the head of RSF’s Latin America desk, according to the release. “The insults, illegal prosecutions and smear campaigns by senior officials against their own country’s journalists are intolerable and are encouraging a level of self-censorship that is extremely damaging for media freedom.”

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.