Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
While the constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, the former Morales government, and to a lesser extent the transitional government, carried out reprisals against media outlets that expressed dissenting opinions. Some media outlets reported the government pressured and intimidated them to report favorably regarding its policies, particularly by withholding government advertising and imposing steep taxes.
Freedom of Speech: On March 25, the interim government issued Presidential Decree 4200 as one of the first major government decrees to fight the COVID-19 pandemic by mandating a national quarantine through April 15 (which was later extended due to an increase in COVID-19 cases). In a section titled “Sanctions for Lack of Compliance,” the second clause reads: “Individuals who incite noncompliance with this decree or misinform or cause uncertainty in the population will be subject to criminal charges for crimes against public health.” A subsequent clause states persons who commit crimes against public health “will be subject to imprisonment for one to 10 years, in accordance with the stipulations of the penal code.” The decree itself establishes no legal sanctions beyond those that already exist. The decree’s language led to criticisms from international observers. On April 7, Jose Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch called the decree’s provision “overly broad” and argued the interim government “appears to be taking advantage of the pandemic to give itself the power to punish anyone who publishes information the government deems ‘incorrect,’ in violation of free speech protections.” On April 11, the IACHR special rapporteur for freedom of expression echoed this sentiment in a tweet, claiming the provision reflected a “disproportionate use of penal law to criminalize commentary on issues of public interest.”
On May 7, the interim government issued Presidential Decree 4231, which states that persons who disseminate information “be it in written, printed, artistic form and/or by any other procedure that puts them at risk or affects public health, or generates uncertainty in the population, will be liable to complaints for the commission of crimes established in the penal code.” This decree built upon Presidential Decree 4200 to deter the spread of “misinformation” related to COVID-19 by broadening the potential methods of disinformation to include “printed and/or artistic form.” Following this decree, the Ombudsman’s Office announced it would file an action before the Constitutional Tribunal to declare Decree 4231 was unconstitutional and violated the fundamental democratic right to freedom of expression. Many entities previously critical of the Morales government’s record on free speech issues noted the decree represented a similar threat against freedom of speech. The Association of Journalists of Bolivia and the Association of Journalists of La Paz called for the repeal of Decree 4231, since “it establishes a severe unconstitutional and unconventional restrictions by penalizing the human and fundamental right to freedom of expression.”
Following a May 14 cabinet meeting, the interim government announced it was annulling the relevant provisions of each “disinformation” decree. The interim government had been widely criticized by domestic and international groups, including the IACHR, for the decrees’ language, which many had argued countered citizens’ free speech and free press rights and international commitments.
On April 21, Mauricio Jara Pacheco was arrested and placed into pretrial detention for allegedly inciting the population via WhatsApp Messenger groups to ignore the rigid national quarantine measures and for belonging to a group of “digital warriors” tied to the previous Morales administration. He was charged with sedition, public instigation to commit a crime, and attacks against public health. On April 29, a total of 46 journalists and media figures released a public statement demanding his release and urging the government to respect freedom of expression. As of September, Jara Pacheco remained in pretrial detention while the investigation continued.
Freedom of the Press and Media, Including Online Media: According to Supreme Decree 181, the government should provide goods and services to all media outlets in a nondiscriminatory manner, but it did not purchase advertisements in media outlets considered adversarial.
Media outlets alleged the government pressured news organizations to report favorably on government policies and retaliated against news organizations that did not comply. The National Press Association of Bolivia (ANP) and several journalists alleged the government’s retaliatory tactics included withdrawing advertisements and conducting excessive tax audits, which forced companies to spend significant time and resources to defend themselves. Civil society organizations explained that while reported harassment under the interim government was not as serious as during the Morales government, other forms of economic pressure via advertising used under the Morales administration continued relatively unchanged. In late 2019 Minister of Communication and Minister of Government Murillo threatened journalists who published stories against the government, but no charges were filed.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists faced threats. On September 11, the ANP Monitoring Unit released a report that detailed 87 cases of assault or attacks against journalists in 2019, up 165 percent from 2018. The unit cited increased social tension during an electoral year as the principal cause. In addition to the 87 cases of direct attacks, the report also highlighted other “alerts” of aggression against freedom of expression that included restricting access to information, stigmatizing discourse, and internet restrictions. Of the 162 total alerts (including the 87 cases of attacks against journalists), the report identified the government as the perpetrator in 28 percent of them, with the other alerts attributed to nonstate actors (mainly protesters) or unknown perpetrators.
On July 29, the ANP reported that at least four journalists were physically and verbally attacked during a march organized by the trade union federation Central Obrera Boliviana and organizations aligned with MAS against the postponement of the general election date, but several of those affected opted for self-censorship to avoid retaliation. Protesters tried to take mobile phones from press envoys filming the marches, and other press workers were insulted and threatened by marchers. One federation leader, who organized the protests, claimed the leadership lacked the ability to control “radical people” among the bases.
On May 20, the ANP reported that a journalist and cameraman were ambushed by MAS-aligned protesters in the K’ara neighborhood of Cochabamba as they attempted to cover a conciliation meeting between community members and municipal authorities regarding a garbage dump that had been temporarily closed due to COVID-19 concerns. According to victim testimony and video from the incident, protesters threw large rocks through the windshield of a press vehicle and chased the journalists as they attempted to flee. The cameraman suffered chest injuries from the stone and shattered glass.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Journalists sometimes practiced self-censorship due to fear of losing their jobs or losing access to government sources, in addition to fear of prosecution and harassment.
There was no evidence the government restricted or disrupted access to the internet or censored online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events, although political considerations allegedly influenced academic appointments.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but some civil society organizations criticized the interim government for using the pretext of the COVID-19 national quarantine to restrict the right of freedom of assembly. The government generally respected the right of freedom of association.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
While the law requires a permit for most demonstrations, the government rarely enforced the provisions, and most protesters demonstrated without obtaining permits. Most demonstrations were peaceful, but occasionally demonstrators carried weapons, including clubs, machetes, firearms, firecrackers, and dynamite. Security forces at times dispersed protest groups carrying weapons or threatening government and private facilities. The number of protests sharply increased due to the postponement of the election to October 18. Protesters established roadblocks that impeded highway traffic for nearly two weeks, and counterprotesters clashed with blockaders in many cities. In September parents of public school students in major cities initiated peaceful, targeted protests to demand school breakfasts for their children, which had been halted when schools closed at the start of the national quarantine.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
In-country Movement: The law prohibits travel on election days and on census days and restricts foreign and domestic travel for up to three months as a penalty for persons who do not vote.
Foreign Travel: On March 25, the interim government enacted a total quarantine and border closing without prior advance public notice, leaving thousands of citizens working in bordering countries stranded outside their homeland. Many of these migrants had lost jobs or income in bordering countries due to lockdown measures and found themselves left at the border in makeshift quarantine camps for indefinite periods of time.
On April 5, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet cited the example of Bolivians stranded at the border with Chile and noted that in the beginning of the crisis, approximately 1,300 citizens, including pregnant women, elderly persons, and children, were stranded on the Chilean side of the border and forced to sleep in the open in freezing temperatures with little food or water before Bolivian and Chilean officials were able to partially remedy the situation weeks later.
e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons
f. Protection of Refugees
The interim government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees through the National Commission on Refugees. The country has a legal structure and framework to accommodate those seeking refuge and has a registry of refugees and stateless persons.
The interim government’s National Commission on Refugees reported it had reactivated processing of refugee applications and approved 176 cases as of October.
Employment: Refugees have the right to work once authorities grant their residency status but not while waiting on pending applications. International Organization for Migration officials assisted with economic integration programs in coordination with the interim government to support entrepreneurs and small business owners from the Venezuelan community to create and maintain small businesses.
Durable Solutions: Refugee recognition does not entail in itself a path to naturalization. In 2016 the Interior Ministry approved a reduction of fees for the naturalization procedure for recognized refugees. Any refugee who wishes to begin this process must comply with all the general legal requirements. UNHCR reported it knew of no cases in the past three years of refugees who applied for naturalization. On January 28, Marcel Rivas, the director general of migration, approved a resolution allowing Venezuelan minors without identification documents or expired documents to regularize their immigration status with authorities. Immigration authorities set up this special measure in recognition of the difficulty of obtaining updated Venezuelan identity documents by changing the regulations to allow parents to attest to the identity of their children using photocopies of their Venezuelan birth certificates or identity documents, even if they were expired. Immigration contacts estimated that approximately 3,000 Venezuelans were “living on the streets,” many of whom were minors. Previously the law required proper entry documents in order to regularize immigration status.