"An exhausting battle comes to an end for us today. It has been many years of hard work committed to the independent journalism in which we believe, years of effort that have filled us with satisfaction but also with anguish. In spite of everything, we continued here, until the water covered our heads and left us without the possibility of making any further movement to keep us afloat. It is over."
With these words, the editorial staff of Página Siete, Bolivia's most influential newspaper, began their farewell letter, in which, on June 29, they announced the closure of the daily publication after 13 years of activity. It was the end of one of the rare Bolivian media of independent journalism, a newspaper that strived to remain dignified and relevant in the midst of a very adverse context.
The story of the bankruptcy of the La Paz-based outlet involves acts of political, economic and judicial persecution by the government. It also has to do with trends in contemporary journalism present in all countries, such as changes in the advertising market and readers who want access to content but do not want to pay for it. In his own farewell letter, the newspaper's owner, Raúl Garáfulic Lehm, spoke of a "combination of adverse circumstances” which created a “perfect storm”.
Three former newsroom editorial managers who spoke to Latam Journalism Review (LJR) broke down the problems that led to the newspaper's demise. They described details such as the tenacity of newsroom professionals who, even without pay for months, persisted in their work, waiting for a sudden capital infusion. They rebutted those who think the paper was part of the "opposition" rather than just a critical newspaper, like in the best journalism. And they were in agreement: The void left by Página Siete in the Bolivian media will not be easy to fill.
The main grievance of the paper's former bosses was the same — the Bolivian government. The relationship between Página Siete and the leaders of the Bolivian Executive had always been tense, and throughout the publication's existence, with a one-year break in 2019 and 2020, it has been occupied by politicians from the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS, by its Spanish acronym).
"The newspaper had been in existence for 13 years, and during those years it suffered public harassment, economic choking, tax fines from the State, which have led it to live always in a state of crisis. Página Siete has always been in crisis,” Mery Vaca Villa told LJR. She was the paper's director for the past two years, and she worked for another four and a half years as deputy editor.
Persecution manifested itself in various ways, such as statements by former president Evo Morales that the newspaper was part of a "cartel of lies," or questionable fines linked to tax issues, a lawsuit against the newspaper's owner — who is currently out of the country — in a lawsuit not linked to the newspaper, or hostility by MAS supporters against journalists during street protests or on social media.
According to Vaca Villa, one form of harassment was especially damaging. As the journalistic market in Bolivia is very small, news media in the country depend on government advertising to make ends meet. This money, however, did not reach Página Siete, but was instead directed to friendly publications.
"In the case of Bolivia, because it’s such a small market, such a small economy, a news organization that does not have advertising from the State has a hard time surviving," Vaca Villa said. "Advertising financed with the taxes of all Bolivians goes to those media that restrict the editorial line in accordance with the interests of the government. Independent media do not receive it."
According to Juan Carlos Salazar, who ran the newspaper from 2013 to 2016 and is now a journalism professor at the Catholic University of Bolivia, "the main source of advertising is the State, and the State has been using that money to reward allied media and to punish critical media."
According to the former directors, the government also exerted pressure on businessmen not to advertise in the newspaper either. In addition, last year a decree exempted banks from publishing their balance sheets in large-circulation print newspapers, authorizing them to do so through virtual means, thus eliminating another source of income.
Alongside this, there have been changes in the market. Printed newspapers stopped circulating in Bolivia during the pandemic, and when the pandemic stopped, readers did not return to their old habits, preferring to inform themselves through digital media. Former paper advertisers, for their turn, did not migrate to the website. An economic slowdown in Bolivia after nearly 17 years of uninterrupted robust growth compounded the problem.
Página Siete tried to adapt to the new times, creating a membership program, called P7 Plus, which offered exclusive content, and a paid app. Its website received around three million monthly visits, and in January it became the first newspaper in Bolivia to have a paywall.
"The Bolivian market was so small that the owner said that with six thousand subscribers Página Siete would have been saved. I think it has surpassed one thousand, but it could never reach six thousand. Because in Bolivia there really is no culture of payment with respect to information. People are used to consuming free information", Vaca Villa said.
The economic crisis that hit the newspaper was so severe that several of its employees have gone for the past few months without pay. According to Vaca Villa, the delays range from five to seven months. There was an expectation that investors would emerge to enable a return to normality.
“Journalists are not in a newspaper only because of a paycheck, but also because they believe in what they’re doing. Besides, possible funding was repeatedly announced, so we said 'Oh, why leave if funding is about to arrive.’ There were three attempts, but unfortunately none came to pass," Vaca Villa said. "The only thing they accomplished was to lengthen this agonizing situation. It created a very tough crisis, not only an economic one for the workers, but also an emotional one."
According to the former director, with the demise of the newspaper, 80 professionals, including 35 journalists, lost their jobs. Vaca Villa herself resigned on June 11. Many Bolivian journalists earn minimum wage, equivalent to US $327, and have to hold multiple jobs.
After the closure of the newspaper, one criticism rang particularly painful for its former leaders: The accusation that the paper was not independent, but rather part of the opposition to the MAS government. The accusation appeared in the headline of the Spanish El País article on the closure of the newspaper, entitled “Página Siete, Bolivia's main opposition newspaper, announces its closure due to lack of resources.”
In the text, reporter Fernando Molina stated that after the newspaper La Razón was bought by a businessman suspected of having links to then-President Evo Morales, Página Siete “started a journalistic polarization that has continued to this day.”
In addition to quoting an editorial error in 2011 — which the newspaper admitted to and for which it apologized — the article said that “the newspaper became a reference point for the well-off middle classes of La Paz, strongly opposed to MAS. It played an important role in spreading the arguments against the fourth reelection of Morales and in creating a mood that framed the overthrow of Morales in 2019. For a few months, it strongly defended the interim government of Jeanine Añez."
The four former directors of Página Siete — the two mentioned above, as well as Isabel Mercado and Raúl Peñaranda — responded to the story in an article. “We, the four editors Página Siete had throughout its existence, attest that independent and diverse work was done, without any pressure, which resulted in an economic choking and the closure of the newspaper,” they wrote.
Peñaranda, who was the newspaper's first director and resigned in 2013 citing persecution by Morales, explained the argument to LJR.
“As journalists, the word ‘opposition’ sounds to us like manipulation, like being part of a partisan operation. Clearly it has been a critical newspaper from the beginning, but how can it not be, considering the difficult situation in which we live, with an authoritarian government. And also, I believe that in general we journalists have to be critical, because that is part of our job," said Peñaranda, who remained on the editorial board of Página Siete and now runs Brújula Digital.
Vaca Villa pointed out as evidence of the newspaper's independence the fact that the paper was also critical of authoritarianism and corruption by the Áñez government in 2020, also having its advertising budget blocked because of that. According to the former director, journalists managed the editorial line with total freedom and independence, without interference from the owner of the publication.
"It’s been a news outlet that had the moral authority to criticize or praise no matter who. I’ve never received a phone call from any opposition politician to tell me what headline to use, not even from the owner. Our level of independence was such that the owner of the newspaper found out the headlines the following day along with the rest of our readers."
The demise of Página Siete leaves an unfilled void in Bolivia. Bolivia's largest newspaper, El Deber, invests less in investigative stories and focuses more on Santa Cruz, where its headquarters are located. According to Bolivian sources, it also faces economic problems and has delayed salaries. For those who want to do independent journalism in the country, this is today’s reality.
“The situation has deteriorated so much because of this issue the owner calls the perfect storm. The alternative is to work in a news organization that falls in line with the government. There, yes, you’d have a good salary, you’d have benefits and all that. But there is a large number of Bolivian journalists who are not willing to do that," Vaca Villa said.