While the constitution provides for freedom of speech and press, the government did not allow media outlets to express opinions without some reprisal. Government actions to curb dissenting opinion and criticisms created a climate of hostility towards independent journalists and media. Some media sources reported the government pressured and intimidated them to report favorably about its policies, particularly by withholding of government advertising and imposing steep taxes. Members of the press also alleged government officials publicly harassed individual journalists, both verbally and legally, resulting in several prominent journalists ceasing their work or fleeing the country to avoid legal prosecution. Other sources reported that the government intimidated and threatened media outlets perceived to be critical of the government, in an attempt to censor journalists. Members of the government publicly labeled various independent media outlets and individual journalists as being part of a “Cartel of Lies,” in attempts to discredit their reporting; one negative result of such treatment was that journalists practiced self-censorship. Further, the government used its advertising funds to support government-friendly media and deny resources to media it considered critical of the government. The special rapporteur for freedom of expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights noted during his August visit that the government’s actions against the media did not contribute to a climate of plurality, tolerance, or respect for freedom of expression.
Freedom of Speech and Expression: On May 10, Minister of the Presidency Juan Ramon Quintana accused Wilson Garcia, the then executive director of the print and digital newspaper Sol de Pando, of sedition. During the time of the accusation, Garcia was in the city of Cobija investigating an international human trafficking and prostitution ring that had supposed ties to several government officials. Garcia intimated throughout the investigating his suspicions that Quintana was either directly or tangentially involved in this illegal operation. Shortly thereafter Quintana ordered Garcia to appear in court on sedition charges in the city of Cochabamba. On May 12, Garcia fled to Rio Branco, Brazil, due to fears that he would be arrested if he appeared in court. The judge in the case issued an arrest warrant when Garcia did not appear at his court appointment. The warrant was still active, and legal action against Garcia remained pending.
In May independent journalist Carlos Valverde fled the country after government officials issued threats of legal action against him for publishing articles about government corruption and nepotism. In February, Valverde accused President Morales of involvement in “influence peddling” with Morales’ former partner, Gabriela Zapata, and CAMC. In response to this article, several of Valverde’s family members reported being followed to and from home and work and harassed by police on several occasions. After Valverde fled, Morales personally commented on this situation through his twitter account, stating, “Whoever hides themselves or escapes is a confessed delinquent, not a politically persecuted person.” While the government, including Morales, was absolved of any wrongdoing in the case, Zapata remained in prison under pretrial detention.
President Morales initiated criminal proceedings against well-known journalist Humberto Vacaflor for defamation and slander after Vacaflor publicized accusations that Morales ordered the execution of the Andrade family in 2000. Although other individuals, including a former senator who represented the ruling MAS party, corroborated Vacaflor’s assertions, the case against him went forward. On September 28, the judge denied Vacaflor’s petition to move the case to an independent press tribunal and gave Vacaflor five days publicly to retract the accusations he made against Morales. On September 29, Vacaflor retracted the accusations, stating the system was too powerful for him to fight. Morales “accepted” the retraction on October 4, and the government apparently dropped the case against the journalist.
During a May 19 address to parliament, Minister of the Presidency Quintana accused the independent newspapers Erbol, El Deber, and Pagina Siete and the news agency Fides of forming a “Cartel of Lies.” According to Quintana, this “unit” actively worked in conjunction with a foreign embassy to discredit the government and President Morales. The president, vice president, and other top officials in the government used this branding in an attempt to undermine and silence opposition journalists, columnists, and op-ed writers. Morales also asserted Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression Edison Lanza Robatto was aligned with the “Cartel” after Lanza’s August 24 commentary on the lack of media freedoms in the country.
In an apparent case of self-censorship, the Red Uno news network fired Enrique Salazar for publicly arguing with Minister of Communication Marianela Paco during a live broadcast on May 20. Red Uno had ties to the government as the wife of Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera was its main news anchor.
Press and Media Freedoms: Some media outlets alleged the government pressured news organizations to report favorably about government policies and retaliated against news organizations that did not comply. The National Press Association and several journalists alleged the government’s retaliatory tactics included withdrawing all of its advertisements, thus denying a significant source of revenue, and launching stringent tax audits, which forced companies to spend time and resources to defend themselves. According to Supreme Decree 181, the government is responsible for providing goods and services to all media outlets in a nondiscriminatory manner. Moreover, the withholding of these government-guaranteed goods and services is in direct violation of Declaration of Principles of the Freedom of Expression Declaration adopted by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. There were many credible reports that the government chose not to deliver these goods to media outlets they designated as adversarial to the government. Certain independent outlets did not receive funding from the government after being identified as part of the “Cartel of Lies.”
On August 19, Marco Antonio Dipp, leader of the Sucre-based daily newspaper Correo del Sur, sent a denunciation letter to the mayor, MAS party member Ivan Arcienega, claiming that he prohibited Correo del Sur from receiving any funds from the municipal government. On August 21, the National Press Association decried the economic asphyxiation of independent media at the national, departmental, and municipal levels. The association also asserted that this financial attack against independent media was made more acute by the February 21 referendum loss, which the government blamed in large part on social media and the press. The secretary general of the municipality stated that Dipp’s accusations were false and that the government was not unfairly biased; according to the secretary, it was less expensive for the city to advertise in other publications.
Financial actions on the part of the government appeared to support the claim that the government was trying to control the media narrative. The government increased media investment by 22 percent over the previous 12 months. Further, the Ministry of Communication received a 367 million-boliviano ($54 million) budget allocation for the year, an increase of 260 million bolivianos ($38 million) compared with 2015. Finally, the government invested in the creation of the new General Directorate of Social Networks, an entity dedicated specifically to placing government-friendly messages in social media outlets and engaging in online harassment of social media users who criticize the government on their personal pages.
Authorities disputed the idea that they were economically suffocating any media outlets. Minister of Communication Paco cited the August modification of Telecommunications Law, which provides for broadcasting licenses to broadcast media outlets until November 30, 2019, as proof of the existence of freedom of expression. According to the director of the telecommunications and transportation authority, the modifications of the law would positively affect 135 media outlets. Under the new version, media outlets can retain their licenses until 2019--three years past the original expiration date. Nonetheless, outlets must still bid on their licenses. Critics expressed concern that it would permit government officials to turn bidding into an opaque and unfair process for those media outlets that were critical of the government.
Violence and Harassment: There were reports of violence and harassment against members of the press corps, especially those who reported on the February 21 referendum proceedings and results and on various protests throughout the year. Jesus Alanoca, of the newspaper El Deber, and Alvaro Valero were arrested while covering demonstrations in La Paz. The vice minister of the interior claimed that Alanoca was detained because he was not carrying proper credentials to cover the protests, although Alanoca stated that he showed both his journalist credentials and his government identification at the time of his arrest. Before either was allowed to leave custody, police ordered that they destroy all their footage of the protests. Valero reported being victimized again during the course of his work when he was attacked during a demonstration two days after he was released from police custody. Reporters without Borders noted that the government-affiliated group Satucos intimidated Australian filmmaker Daniel Fallshawn on several occasions for his documentation of the protests by disability activists.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government censored journalists, and journalists practiced self-censorship due to fear of losing their jobs, fear of prosecution, and fear of losing access to government sources. According to a 2014 study published by the University of Texas’ Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas and the Unite Foundation, 54 percent of journalists reported being censored, and 83 percent stated they knew of colleagues who had been censored. Of those responding, 59 percent admitted to self-censorship. Approximately 28 percent of journalists were censored for topics that could have caused conflict with the government, 26 percent for reasons that could have affected the interests of advertisers, and 26 percent for reasons that could have exposed journalists to lawsuits.
In January writer Diego Ayo published an investigation about the now defunct Indigenous Fund in which he mentioned specific points of corruption in the handling of the fund that caused economic damage to the government. On May 24, government officials who were conducting an investigation into the Indigenous Fund corruption scandal asked Ayo to “correct himself” and remove his work to prevent anyone else from reading the information he published. Additionally, the officials instructed Ayo that the only information about the Indigenous Fund case should emanate from an official government office, thereby prohibiting him from republishing his investigation.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government systematically monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. Nevertheless, after the loss of the February 21 referendum, government officials proposed two different initiatives aimed at regulating social networks. The government blamed social media attacks against the government as a major reason for Morales’ defeat in the referendum. While these measures were not approved, the government managed to pass a supreme decree that establishes the General Directorate of Social Networks, an entity under the control of the Ministry of Communication, shortly after the referendum loss. This new institution is tasked with directing the government’s “dissemination, consultation, and interaction” with cyber communities.
The Ministry of Government publicly warned citizens involved in the August miners’ protest against posting any videos on social media of the negotiation process between the miners and now deceased vice minister of interior, Rodolfo Illanes. The ministry stated that any individual found violating this order would face legal consequences. There is no law prohibiting a citizen’s ability to publish this content on any social outlet.
In June the Telecommunications and Transportation Authority reported 6.9 million mobile internet users (in an estimated population of 11 million). The connections to the internet from mobile sources represented 96.7 percent of all internet connections. The remaining percentage of individuals maintained the full range of connectivity in their homes. The three main reasons for low penetration were economic barriers, speed deficiencies, and poor access to broadband, which limited access beyond urban areas.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events, although political considerations allegedly influenced academic appointments, and government entities promoted a culture of self-censorship.