Independent journalists face social polarization after the departure of former President Evo Morales

Polarization persists in Bolivia after former leftist President Evo Morales resigned and fled the country and conservative politician Jeanine Áñez declared herself interim president. Meanwhile, journalists working in the country are finding themselves caught in the middle.

For journalist Raúl Peñaranda, director of the site Brújula Digital, the pressure, criticism and threats by state officials have stopped in comparison with the practices of the previous government.

“I see that the situation of the press and independent journalists in Bolivia has improved markedly with the fall of Evo. At least it shows, you breathe an air of freedom,” Peñaranda told the Knight Center.

“In itself, freedom of expression at this time, as such, is not being as overwhelmed as in the previous government, where there have been mechanisms to interfere with the spheres, especially the organization of journalists, communicators, and also, even in media ownership,” said José Luis Aguirre, director of the Service of Training in Radio and TV for Development (Secrad, for its acronym in Spanish) of the Bolivian Catholic University (UCB).

Although Bolivian journalist Juan Araos, director of content of the newspaper Los Tiempos de Cochabamba, agrees that the pressures on the independent press no longer come from the government, he explained that the polarized social environment that led to last October's electoral fraud is placing new challenges on journalistic work.

“One might think that the thing is quiet for journalists, but it is not so. (...) As the situation has been polarized, sectors that for these 14 years were considered opposition, are now official and have an absolute animosity to President Morales, and crash into the media that report [news related to the former president],” Araos told the Knight Center.

Independent journalists are no longer persecuted by the government, "there are no longer press conferences to silence some newspapers," it is now the people, the readers, who are very polarized and end up affecting the work of the press, Araos said.

“It's not like we're in a cup of milk. No. We are still under pressure, we are still in trouble, obviously not as much as before, because before it was the government. What happened here [in Bolivia] was very hard, people were very affected, very shocked. There is a lot of polarization,” he added.

As an example of this, the journalist mentioned the excesses of the group called the Resistencia Juvenil Cochala against the press during a vigil in front of the Departmental Legislative Assembly, when the electoral members were elected in December 2019.

There was a human cordon of members of that movement that “hindered the work of journalists who wanted to have an interview with the candidates, and did not let them do their job. This problem arises from the issue of polarization,” Araos said. This citizen movement that disagrees with the position of the Morales government, says in its Twitter profile that it aims to fight for democracy in Bolivia.

This social polarization has provoked clashes between groups for and against Morales and made it so that many media outlets, such as community radio stations and radio stations of indigenous peoples, suffered damage to their infrastructure during protests at the end of 2019 to the point that they stopped broadcasting.

More recently, on Jan. 14, the National Association of Bolivian Press (ANP) reported that citizens interfered with the work of journalists, such as stopping them from taking photos. One journalist told the organization that police officers nearby just watched.

Edison Lanza, special rapporteur for freedom of expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), then posted on Twitter: “The obligation of the State is protect journalists and to sanction aggressors.”

Radio station remnants of Evo

The community radios of indigenous peoples (RPO), created by Morales, have been broadcasting messages of hate and calls to civil war in various locations of the country, as Martín Díaz Meave, current vice minister of communications policies of the Ministry of Communication of Bolivia, told the Knight Center.

“Here in the ministry many complaints have been received, quite particular, about these calls to civil war. Many radios that are economically dependent on the government that were broadcasting messages calling for civil war, with personal threats, including against the president (Jeanine Añez), and about the new government,” Díaz said.

In early January, former Minister of Communication, Roxana Lizárraga said that Radio Kawsachun Coca was not fulfilling its role as an RPO to educate and inform and accused it of broadcasting “seditious voices that continue to call for confrontation,” according to Página Siete.

She pointed out that the government had not stopped the station from operating.

“That is freedom of expression, but also freedom of expression has its limits and you also have to act head on when there are problems that could in some way badly inform the people of Bolivia, seeking to protect corrupt governments, to protect drug trafficking events, actions also have to be taken against this,” Lizárraga said.

Operators of the radio station reported on social networks that their transmission equipment had been confiscated by the Ministry of Communication for an "alleged maintenance," according to Página Siete.

Special Rapporteur Edison Lanza Tweeted, “The ‘limits’ proposed by the Minister of Communications of Bolivia on radio stations must be compatible with the broad protection of freedom of expression under the American Convention.”

Following his exit from Bolivia, a recording of Morales calling for the formation of armed militias was leaked on Kawsachun Coca Tropico, as reported by Reuters. The former leader told the news agency that Bolivians had a right to self-defense from the new government and that he had not meant “arms, more like slingshots.”

During the Evo Morales government, these RPOs relayed the signal of the national government radio station, Radio Illimani, which at the time was called Radio Patria Nueva, as Peñaranda explained.

"The RPOs were not even considered radios of indigenous peoples, but were located in strategic places of the country and re-broadcast the government radio, which was a radio station favorable to Morales without any pluralism, but they were practically repetitive."

These RPOs have fought and competed for years with the traditional Bolivian community radio stations that do transmit local content and comply with the requirements of Law 164, the General Law of Telecommunications, Information Technology and Communication, according to Aguirre, who was in charge of the Bolivian chapter of the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC) for 12 years.

“Unfortunately, the previous government has used many community radios politically with a very simple strategy: if you aligned yourself with the party idea, they provided you with infrastructure, they gave you financial resources and they even gave you a transmitter. In this way, Law 164 was passed, which specifies that a community radio must present an educational radio project,” vice minister Díaz added.

However, Díaz denied that the transitional government has tried to censor community radio stations after news of the closure of radio stations that some Bolivian media reported on, such as newspaper La Razón in December 2019. “This argument has been used to attack the government, as if it wanted to silence these radios,” he said.

“There are radio stations that have been destroyed, burned, there are hosts or operators that have been threatened, etc. Then, in mid-November, when the protests ended, several of these radio stations reported to the government the damages they suffered. The regularizations have taken some time because it has also taken some time for the country to return to a normal course, as we say,” he said.

The vice minister explained that in many cases, it was not possible to reallocate new budget lines to the affected radio stations because it was the end of the year and did not have the necessary resources to do so. "Then, these radio stations that were to broadcast local content had to start simply playing music or repeating the Illimani radio signal."

“We have resumed contact with the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (Amarc), where several of its members in a very discretionary manner had renewed their license, and what we have done is to regularize the situation of all of them, and this is a job that still it's ongoing,” the vice minister said.

For his part, Aguirre, director of the Secrad, made a distinction between the RPOs and the traditional community radio stations in the country. The RPOs were retransmitters of the Patria Nueva state radio, they do not broadcast local content, not like the Amarc member community radio stations, Aguirre said.

“Traditional community radios have been operating in Bolivia since the late 1970s. Our rural community radios have always been harassed and had their equipment seized because in the previous telecommunications regulations they were not recognized, only two types of operators were categorized: the state operator and the private commercial operator, where the community figure does not appear,” Aguirre said.

With Law 164, which was enacted on Aug. 8, 2011, then-President Morales created the RPOs and gave traditional community radio stations legal status. Thanks to this law, the radio space was redistributed giving 17 percent to the radios of native peoples and another 17 ercent to community social radios.

According to Aguirre, one of the virtues of that law is to have granted traditional community radios their legal recognition for the first time, however, he noted that this was due to years of effort and work of the Amarc.

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