Yesterday, on the 3rd of May, was the World Press Freedom Day. The day is celebrated annually to raise awareness of the importance of press freedom and to recognise the significant work of journalists all around the world. Furthermore, the day offers a great opportunity to review the state of press freedom more diligently and the day also functions as a reminder for the states to respect press freedom and free expression. This article will celebrate the World Press Freedom Day by examining the state of press freedom in Bolivia.
First, the article will cover the background of the day, as well as the concepts of press freedom and freedom of speech. The global situation will be shortly reflected upon before assessing the condition of press freedom and free expression in Bolivia. The focus will be on investigating harassment and repression of journalists, violent attacks and threats on journalists, self-censorship and impunity of these crimes. The emphasis will be especially on the recent events in Bolivia, nominally the tenure of President Jeanine Añez’s transitional government. Finally, ITEI’s remarks on the topic will be presented.
Conceptual background and global situation
The day commemorates the Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and marks the anniversary of the Windhoek Declaration – a declaration that defined the basic press freedom principles which ought to be followed worldwide. The celebration is particularly essential this year because attacks on journalists are increasing and the ideas of freedom of press and expression are endangered worldwide. They are threatened by violent attacks and intimidations, but also by harassment of journalists through the acts of arbitrary detentions, restrictive laws, excessive state control or influence over the media and censorship.
Freedom of expression and press freedom are crucial human rights that are essential preconditions for democracy and properly functioning civil society. Freedom of the press requires that the country’s legal environment is supportive, the media is free of political pressures, there are alternative sources of information, and economic factors do not affect people’s access to information. Freedom of expression, instead, includes the rights: ‘to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’.
Freedom of the press is crucial because media performs a critical role as the societal watchdog scrutinising the government and elites. Besides, the media provides information for the citizens so that people can construct their own opinions. The media also facilitates public discussions on various important daily topics. Freedom of expression is crucial, on the other hand, for the simple fact that expressing one’s opinions is the essence of being a human.
IFEX estimates that over 1000 journalists have been killed worldwide since 2006. Besides, every day numerous journalists and media personnel suffer non-lethal attacks, such as assaults, torture, forced disappearances, arbitrary detentions, threats, harassment and sexual violence. These crimes are predominantly committed to silence truth and alternative sources of information, which would expose human rights abuses, corruption and other crimes to the wider audience. Thus, violence, harassment and torture against journalists cruelly limit the public’s access to crucial and impartial information. This is a severe violation of press freedom and the public’s right to know what is happening in the world.
Even more striking than the number of crimes against journalists, is the amount of impunity related to these crimes. Impunity for the crimes against journalists is horrific as 90% of the cases go unpunished. The fact that impunity is so common, leads to even higher amounts of violence and crimes against journalists because it indicates the attackers that there will be no penalties for “humiliating the truth”. This threatens the free speech and press freedom – but also the judiciary’s ability to protect them – and also the whole basis of our civil societies and rule of law are endangered when impunity is allowed to prevail.
Globally, Bolivia’s press freedom and freedom of expression are not ranked highly. For example, in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters without Borders, Bolivia ranked 114th out of 180 countries. To put the ranking into context, Bolivia scored similarly with countries, such as Mali – a country experiencing a fierce civil war –, Nicaragua – a country led by a dictatorship – and Afghanistan – a country struggling with years of terrorism and war. Furthermore, Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press 2017 report classified Bolivia’s media as ‘partly free’. Especially, attacks, threats, censorship and harassment by the state and pro-government forces have weakened the freedom of the press and free expression.
(Journalist attacked while reporting about the 2019 protests)
The Bolivian state utilises triangle of intimidation, harassment and repression towards the media in order to control what is being said and written publicly. The methods include public verbal attacks, arbitrary detentions, smear campaigns and prosecution threats against the journalists. State surveillance and censorship are also pervasive in Bolivia, as the police are increasingly monitoring social media platforms and the media is largely controlled by the state. Together these actions have forced Bolivian journalists to adopt measures of self-censorship.
Indeed, censorship and self-censorship are huge problems in Bolivia. The research from 2014 found that more than half (54%) of the journalists had faced censorship during their career and even more (59%) had committed self-censorship. Moreover, 83% of the surveyed knew colleagues who had been censored. Considering the statistics of censorship, it is easy to say that the freedoms of speech and press are currently undermined in Bolivia. Furthermore, as we shall soon see, self-censorship has even increased due to the last year’s political crisis.
In addition to state harassment and abusive scrutiny, there are regular physical threats and even violent attacks against journalists. Indeed, hundreds of media personnel have been physically and verbally threatened and attacked in recent years. Even murders of journalists have occurred. The offenders are mostly state officials but sometimes also pro-government social movements. Even more strikingly the impunity for crimes against journalists is rather a norm than an exception in Bolivia. Almost none of the attacks against journalists have been investigated and virtually none of the culprits have been convicted.
The 2019 political crisis worsened the already weak state of press freedom in Bolivia as the events of October-November and their aftermath severely deteriorated the media personnel’s safety. There were systematic attacks – attempts to silence – against the members of the press who were just doing their job of reporting about the protests. The police used tear gas and even explosives against the journalists. Furthermore, the protestors also attacked against the press by burning houses of journalists, throwing rocks at reporters and sabotaging TV stations. Moreover, the social media accounts of some media outlets were blocked.
(Journalist of Al-Jazeera being gassed by the police during a live broadcast)
Indeed, the attacks against freedom of expression and the whole profession of journalists were so harsh that many agencies had to resort to self-censorship and suspend their operations to protect the lives of their employees. Essentially, the Bolivian press was forced violently to withdraw from its commitment to objective and quality reporting during the crisis. Therefore, it can be said that anti-democratic voices gained control over the press content and installed fear on the media outlets, journalists and in general towards the practice of journalism.
The state has made the operation of media much harder, as government interferences have increased within the last year. For example, the MAS government severely restricted media freedom before the elections by blacklisting and forcing many anti-government journalists out of work and by obstructing the publication of electoral polls before the elections. The transitional government has also interfered in the free manoeuvre of the press. For example, Añez’s ex-Communications Minister Roxana Lizárraga made comments that freedom of expression “has its limits” in Bolivia. Besides, the government has arrested and harassed several journalists on the basis of “sedition” – an arbitrary accusation that has been utilized regularly, without any evidence, against the critics and “opponents” of the current regime.
Furthermore, Añez recently issued an emergency decree related to the COVID-19 that enables the government to prosecute whoever criticizes them. The decree is worded so vaguely that it is impossible to know what would be characterized as crossing the line of “misinformation” or “causing uncertainty”. Thus, the decree is essentially a tool to attack against the “enemies of the state” and to curb free speech and press freedom in Bolivia. Moreover, the government top officials have used strong language to intimidate journalists. For example, the Public Works Minister Iván Arias declared that anyone publishing false information on social media will be imprisoned for 10 years and forced to cure COVID-19 patients. The decree has strongly been condemned by the Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The first example of the Añez regime using this decree to persecute its political opponents is the case of Mauricio Jara. He is blamed for misinformation and spreading hatred and the government also accuses him of sedition, public instigation and attack against public health. It seems that the government is exploiting the vague notion of “misinformation” as an excuse to imprison an outspoken opposition activist. In response, 48 Bolivian journalists have written a public statement condemning this arbitrary detention and pointing out the government’s rising trend for violating free speech. The statement also recognises the fact that the Bolivian Constitution and the international treaties that Bolivia has ratified do not recognize any such crime as “misinformation” and that they simultaneously protect citizens’ right to free speech.
Press freedom was weak during the Morales regime and there have not been positive developments during the transitional government of Añez. The situation deteriorated even more during the protests and now during the COVID-19 lockdown. The biggest challenges for press freedom and freedom of expression in Bolivia include self-censorship, intimidation and attacks against journalists as well as state’s persecution of political opponents on an arbitrary and ambiguous basis. Due to the current situation of free speech and media freedom, Bolivian democracy and the human rights of the Bolivians remain also threatened.
ITEI certainly recognises the importance of press freedom and free expression in Bolivia. ITEI believes that torture, violence and other human rights violations by the state must be reported and scrutinized in the public. ITEI aims to facilitate public discussion of torture and state violence in Bolivia and to inform the public about these practices in Bolivia. For the eradication of torture and state violence, it is essential that these are covered in the media and denounced by the public. This is important especially now because many people in Bolivia identify torture and state violence as actions of past – something that the military governments practised. For winning the battle against torture, it is fundamental that the public is informed about its existence and that the regular people also start demanding the termination of these practices. Therefore, press freedom and freedom of expression are vital elements in the fight against torture and state violence.
4th of May 2020