Bolivia created “government-operated” media network to control public opinion, new book says

By Alejandro Martínez

In the last several years the administration of Bolivia’s President Evo Morales has created a media network that is privately owned but is indirectly controlled by the government in an effort to have direct influence over public opinion, according to a new book about the Bolivian government’s relationship with the media.

The book “Remote Control” (“Control Remoto” in Spanish) was written by Raúl Peñaranda, a well-known journalist and former editor of the independent newspaper Página Siete. The book is based on interviews he conducted with personnel from the Vice-President's office, ministers, journalists, media executives and anonymous sources.

The book describes in detail the purchase of media outlets by entrepreneurs who sympathize with the Bolivian government, who then “cede editorial and informative control” to the office of the Vice-President Álvaro García Linera, said Peñaranda during the presentation of this book on April 10.

Peñaranda said this was the case with television channels ATB, PAT, Full TV and Abya Yala, as well as newspaper La Razón, the national daily with the biggest distribution in the country that currently is owned by Carlos Gil, a Venezuelan entrepreneur and friend of Morales and the deceased Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. These outlets receive government financial support through advertising that is “unusual” and “much bigger” than what other media that are not as closely tied to Morales’ administration receive, Peñaranda said.

“In all of the aforementioned media outlets, there are journalists who have been named and given the responsibility of controlling the editorial line,” he said.

Vice-President Garcia Linera responded to the accusations by saying that he has “more important things to do in life” than controlling what the media says, news agency EFE reported. The media outlets listed by Peñaranda have denied having a pro-government agenda.

The 500 copies of the first edition ran out in the first 40 minutes after the presentation of the book. Second and third editions are on the way, Peñaranda said in an email to the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.

Peñaranda attributed the success in part to an attempt from the Bolivian government to discredit him just a few days before the launch of the book. The tactic had the opposite effect, he said.

Before the presentation, the country’s communications minister Amanda Dávila organized a press conference to reiterate accusations made by the government in the past that Peñaranda and other journalists from Página Siete have defended Chilean political interests during the legal dispute that Bolivia began with Chile over an access to the Pacific Ocean. During the conference, Dávila presented a Chilean passport belonging to Peñaranda and accused him of having been born in Chile.

Peñaranda responded by saying that his dual citizenship – Chilean and Bolivian – have never been a secret, according to newspaper Los Tiempos.

Peñaranda’s relationship with the government of Evo Morales is notably tense. While Peñaranda led Página Siete – a newspaper that he founded in 2009 – the daily regularly covered public corruption, which brought his news team repeated warnings and harassments from public officials.

The pressure increased when the government began accusing the newspaper of favoring Chilean interests in the maritime dispute. Last year, after an error was published on Página Siete, Peñaranda decided to resign from the newspaper in an attempt to protect the publication from a new disparaging campaign from the government.

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.