Media and journalism associations in Bolivia are on alert due to a proposal to reform the Penal Code that is under debate in the country's Congress. They claim that Article 200 of the new Code, which provides for sanctions against professional misconduct, poses a threat to press freedom by opening the door to the criminalization of journalists in that country.
The National Press Association (ANP, for its acronym in Spanish) and National Association of Journalists of Bolivia (ANPB) are some of the entities that have already protested against the article, which originally provided for sanction only for medical malpractice.
According to EFE, the article was reworked following a protest by the Bolivian Medical College and was rewritten to sanction "recklessness, negligence, malpractice, non-observance of protocols, regulations or duties inherent to the exercise" of any profession.
In a statement released on Sept. 26, the ANP stated that the approval of such article "would have dire consequences in the journalistic field, where self-censorship would be imposed, while all Bolivian citizens would be subject to prior censorship in the diffusion of ideas and opinions" .
If it is applied to journalists and communicators, Article 200 "would violate the constitutional principles and the Press Law that protects the exercise of journalism" in the country, the ANP said.
The association commented hours after José Alberto Gonzales, president of the Bolivian Senate, said that the law affects "those who are professionals, it concerns everyone, not only in the medical field," according to El Deber. The senator also said that journalists could be guilty when, for example, they talk about "suicide and a person who listened to this program throws themselves out of the window."
The ANP said in its statement that the proposal conflicts with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which deals with the right to freedom of opinion and expression, as well as Article 106 of the Bolivian Constitution, which deals with the same subject.
"Journalists can not be tried by an ordinary court and must have recourse to a Special Court included in the Press Law widely recognized by the Constitution in Article 107, which admits the validity of ‘rules of ethics and self-regulation of journalists' organizations and media and their law,’” the association added.
President of the ANPB, Pedro Glasinovic, told EFE that the potential application of the proposed article toward journalists "violates the Constitution" and that he will ask for a consultation with the Bolivian Congress to explain whether the article will affect these professionals.
In response to the concerns of journalists and communicators, the president of the Chamber of Deputies, Gabriela Montaño, said on Sept. 28 that the article does not change the situation of those in the profession, governed by the Bolivian Press Law.
"The article about professional malpractice has generated a series of conjectures that need to be clarified ... This wording does not affect anything, it does not change in any way the current situation of journalists and the media in normative terms," the congresswoman said, according to El Deber.
At the center of the controversy, Senator Gonzales said on Sept. 28 that he will call the ANP to talk with legislators about the controversial article. "[We want] to explain the meaning of the law so that everyone is calm and, yes, eventually the writing can improve a little, as it happened in the case of the doctors. Obviously doing, that has always been our predisposition(...). I said from the outset that the goal is not to pursue, nor criminalize, nor penalize the work of any Bolivian professional," he said, according to Diario Página Siete.
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.