Bolivian government releases documentary “The Cartel of Lies” with attacks on the press; journalists react

The Bolivian government premiered the controversial 80-minute documentary, “The Cartel of Lies” (“El Cártel de la Mentira”), which generated profound rejection from journalist associations, activists and citizens of that South American country. The documentary was carried out by Juan Ramón Quintana, Bolivia’s minister of the presidency, and contains attacks against the country’s independent press.

“The Cartel of Lies” was shown for free on Dec. 14 in various movie theaters in the Bolivian capital and in the principal cities of the country. It was also distributed via the Ministry of the Presidency’s Youtube account.

Raúl Peñaranda, one of the journalists critical of Bolivian President Evo Morales, and editor-in-chief of Agencia de Noticias Fides (ANF), is identified in the documentary as one of the main perpetrators of the 'cartel of lies.'

Peñaranda told the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas that using "public funds to contract the production of a documentary and then mobilizing government personnel to make that documentary publicly and freely available, in cinemas in several cities of the country, demonstrates the authoritarian vision of the Government.”

The documentary is focused on the alleged destabilizing role played by the independent press against the Morales government in the days leading up to the referendum on Feb. 21, 2016, after which Morales lost the citizen vote to run for a fourth term in office.

During those days, the press reported that Morales had a child with his former partner Gabriela Zapata in 2007, denouncing an alleged case of influence peddling.

The central theme of the documentary revolves around the treatment the critical media gave to the government in the case of Morales’ alleged son.

The first journalist to make this case public was Carlos Valverde. On Feb. 3, the journalist exposed this alleged influence peddling of Morales and reported that the president would have favored the Bolivian branch of Chinese company CAMC Engineering Co. Ltd, with million-dollar contracts from the State while Zapata was commercial manager of that company.

Valverde, now a refugee in Argentina, said "there is no lie in any of the allegations: nine years ago Morales officially enrolled a child in National Civil Registry Offices and recognized him as a son. On Feb. 5, 2016, he said yes, that he was a partner of Gabriela Zapata and that they had an enrolled child and that the child died.”

For Valverde, all this led the Morales government to rehearse the excuse that a lie (the boy) led them to lose the referendum. "That was better than acknowledging that the voting population grew tired of government corruption; for that they used the accusation of ‘Cartel of Lies’; when the obvious was very clear," Valverde said.

Newspapers El Deber and Página Siete, along with media outlets of the Erbol network and ANF are the four media that are constantly pointed out in the documentary as being part of the "Cartel of Lies" and of conducting a campaign of misinformation against the government.

Journalist Fernando del Rincón from the international news network CNN also appears in the documentary as part of the “cartel of lies” for having interviewed the relatives of Zapata and the alleged living son of Morales. However, the Mexican journalist never published that interview because, he said, he did not find enough evidence to prove what Zapata’s family said, or physical evidence, such as a DNA test, to confirm the existence of the alleged son of Morales.

After the release of the documentary in question, the National Association of Journalists of Bolivia (ANPB for its acronym in Spanish) and the Association of Journalists of La Paz (APLP) rejected its broadcast in a press release issued on Dec. 14.

"The massive dissemination of this documentary, funded by the Ministry of the Presidency, is part of the government's strategy to intimidate and discredit the labor of information workers. (...) The massive display throughout the country of the documentary is an incitement to violence, mistreatment and smearing of the journalists mentioned in the documentary," the associations said in their statement.

The journalistic associations also blamed the Morales government for any type of violence that affects the physical integrity of journalists and their families as a result of the documentary's exhibition.

For his part, Bolivian journalist Mario Maldonado, who was editor-in-chief and deputy director of the independent newspaper Presencia for 20 years, said that this situation was "unacceptable, that a journalist is hired to intimidate and frighten other colleagues, that public resources are used to attempt to rewrite history.”

"People are not stupid, people realize, they have the ability to reason," Maldonado added.

Likewise, through its Facebook account, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called on the Bolivian authorities "to put an end to the smear campaign against critical media and journalists, and to ensure that the Bolivian press can freely report on issues of public interest, without fear of interference or intimidation."

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.