Bolivian court demands journalists disclose sources or face 30 years in jail

By Dylan Baddour

Charges of espionage that could result in a 30-year jail sentence were brought against two journalists of the Bolivian newspaper La Razón for publishing alleged state secrets leaked to a reporter by an anonymous source.

Reporter Ricardo Aguilar and editor Claudia Benavente face charges for Aguilar’s reporting on details of the participation of a Bolivian delegation in the proceedings of the International Court of Justice regarding a dispute with Chile.

On May 9 a judge gave Aguilar three days to reveal the names of his confidential sources, but La Razón’s lawyer charged the judge with incompetence so the deadline was delayed, but the decision was not retracted.

Journalists and press advocacy groups have protested the charges, calling it a violation of the country’s 1925 press law, which guarantees confidentiality of reporters’ sources, and a deterrent to reporters’ future sources.

But Walter Chávez, advisor to president Evo Morales, said that the judiciary wasn’t interested in punishing the journalist so much as discovering who leaked the confidential information.

“It’s not about making an example of a journalist. It’s more about finding, within the Bolivian delegation, the person (or persons) who today betrays their country handing documents to a journalist and tomorrow could elevate the scale of their betrayal…” said Chavez in a column on 12 May in Bolivia’s Erbol website.

Benavente told the news site Eju that the article had “no element that does damage to the state.” In a public announcement of the charges, La Razón wrote that the Aguilar’s story “was processed in a lawful manner, under our codes of ethics and printed, without violating any norm.”

If found guilty, the two journalists could face 30 years in prison.

Bolivia’s delegation had traveled to The Hague to challenge the outcome of the 1879-1883 War of the Pacific in which Chile conquered all of Bolivia’s 420 km of coastline, leaving the country landlocked. It remains an extremely sensitive and central issue in Bolivian politics.

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.