Government killed almost all independent media in Bolivia, says a journalist awarded with the Cabot Prize

Raúl Peñaranda has been the source of headaches for the powers that be since the start of his journalism career as a teenager in Bolivia. Back then, his subjects were teachers. Now, he focuses on the Bolivian government.

Peñaranda, who created independent media outlets Nueva EconomíaLa Época and Página Siete, was recognized this year by the Maria Moors Cabot Prize for outstanding reporting on the Americas.

The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism said he “is one of the most accomplished journalists in Bolivia today. He has been a successful media entrepreneur, an innovator, an outstanding editor and analyst, a prolific book writer and ‘a voice of cool reason’ in the heated and polarized political environment the country has experienced in recent years.”

Peñaranda founded the investigative publication Página Siete in 2010. Three years later, in an attempt to save his project amid an already tense relationship with the government, he resigned after a reporting mistake brought national attention to the newspaper.

The critical journalist has often been a target of Bolivian President Evo Morales’ administration, which has called him a “Chilean agent” and a “traitor,” according to Página Siete. In one of his most recent books, Remote Control, he argued that Morales’ administration indirectly controls the media through a network of outlets that were purchased by businesspeople sympathetic to the government.

In addition to writing books, Peñaranda now edits Agencia de Noticias Fides and the weekly supplement Aldea Global. The former Niemen Fellow (Bolivia’s first) and three other journalists will be presented with the honors on October 14 at Columbia University in New York City.

Ahead of the ceremony, The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas is speaking with each recipient about their career and the state of journalism. For the first entry, we spoke with veteran foreign correspondent, Lucas Mendes of Brazil and New York City. This time around, we caught up with Bolivian award recipient Raúl Peñaranda.

Knight Center: When and why did you decide to become a journalist?

Raúl Peñaranda: I think since I was a child. My mother always remembers the story of when I once came home from school when I was six, I was in first grade, wearing a piece of cardboard in my apron, with a pin. It said, in bad handwriting of a six-year-old child, "Journalist". What happened is that the teacher had asked everyone what we wanted to be as grownups and we had to write that. I wrote, who knows why, "journalist."

Later, I was in school, in grade 11, I made a bulletin board, which was updated every Monday and placed the back of the room. I decided to do a survey and ask students their opinions on teachers. The result for each teacher was published each week. There was much criticism of teachers and I was pressured to suspend publication. Which I did not do. Ultimately, they threw me out of school.

In university, the second and third year, I made a monthly magazine called La Puerta. It was made on photocopies. From then on, all my life I have been a journalist.

KC: What challenges did you face when starting Nueva Economía, La Época y Página Siete?

RP: Different challenges. When I started Nueva Economía I was very young, I was 27 years old. The project was very small and was based on having scoops on the government. What I did was "going against the grain." At that time, President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and his regime had wide popularity and most of the media supported him. I dedicated myself to finding problems within the government. We had problems in the distribution and sale of advertising, but we made it. It was the first Bolivian newspaper that specialized in economics.

La Época was a more consolidated project. I, by then I was a more experienced journalist. We wanted to make a newspaper that balances well the "hard" information, of the political and economic situation, with areas of information that was more timeless, such as culture and science. We also wanted to have a balance between genres, looking not only to have “inverted pyramids” in our newspaper, but also articles and reports.

The business model was a "Bolivian invention", as said a Spanish consultant who arrived to the country. It was a free weekly, but was distributed in homes and offices of a sector of "decision makers" in the country. The possibility of making quality journalism in a free format and for the elites had not been explored.

We made a list of thousands of businessmen, politicians, diplomats, people of culture, social and trade union leaders, and found out where they lived and which offices were theirs. The newspaper came bagged and labeled directly to their homes and offices once a week. The model was successful.

Página Siete is a much larger project. An important group of investors carried out the idea. There the challenge was to penetrate a saturated market with a new product. But even though we sensed it, we did not realize that the main challenge was to be political. The Bolivian government attacked this newspaper with everything, for our independent position and our investigative reports. From verbal aggression, baseless tax penalties, withdrawal of government advertising, pressure to some private advertisers to stop advertising in the newspaper, etc. But it was also a success. As it is one of the few independent voices, many people follow it and, for the authorities, there is not other choice but to read, comment and…attack it.

With half the people of the competition and lower wages, Página Siete does an excellent job.

KC: You have written or edited 11 books. How is writing a different book to write for the media?

RP: There is not much difference. I think the language in both cases must be precise, clear, argued, tinged, with a logical and understandable structure. My books are in the monographic or essay genres, which ultimately has much to do with journalism. Obviously, by extension, a text is different from a news article or a report, and achieve much greater depth, but in terms of style, the characteristics are similar.

KC: Some people see you as a defender of the independent media and the press. What is the state of the media in this country today?

RP: The state of the media in Bolivia is worrying. The government has managed to kill, almost entirely, independent media. Now those are just a handful. The government, through business allies, has bought media and has changed the editorial line. It has also pressured, with verbal aggression and state entities, to weaken them and frighten them. Finally, it has co-opted them, with millions of dollars in government advertising. These media, to obtain this publicity, and then to continue receiving it, also changed their editorial line and became pro-government press organs.

KC: What does it mean to you to receive this award?

RP: I am very proud and honored. I am the third Bolivian to receive it after Guillermo Gutiérrez Vea Murguía, in the 60s, and Huáscar Cajías, in the 90s. It is a very important award, I think that rewards all colleagues who continue to work to make independent and critical journalism.

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.

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