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 Morales government and its allies carried out reprisals against media outlets that expressed dissenting opinions. The Morales administration’s actions to curb criticism created a climate of hostility towards independent journalists and media and resulted in self-censorship of many news sources. 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 Expression: Prior to the resignation of then president Morales on November 10, the Morales government continued to denounce press critics and independent media sources. In February 2018 Marcelo Miralles Iporre, president of the National Press Association, told the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that the country suffered from “censorship caused by state publicity, law, the financial asphyxiation of the media, and intolerance of those with critical points of view.” He said these factors put at risk “freedom of the press and expression, and democracy.”
On September 11, multiple news sources reported that under the Morales administration, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) threatened to sanction the Higher University of San Andres (UMSA) and a civil society group, Jubileo Foundation, for publishing what it deemed an “invalid” opinion poll that showed President Evo Morales much weaker than previously believed ahead of the October 20 general election. The TSE made technical and legal observations of the survey and used this argument to prohibit the dissemination of the opinion poll. Civil society groups and UMSA, however, argued all legal, technical, and operational requirements to conduct the national survey were followed. Despite this argument, the TSE stated the study could not be disseminated.
In a May report, UNITAS, a local organization dedicated to human rights, identified 88 violations of the freedom of expression from March 2018 to February. The violations included self-censorship, “stigmatization” of journalists, false accusations of criminal conduct against journalists, restrictions on access to public information, discrimination by the government, and censorship.
On November 14, Minister of Communication Roxana Lizarraga publicly warned “she will act according to law” against “journalists or pseudo-journalists who are committing sedition.” National journalists and the IACHR criticized Lizarraga’s statement as a threat against journalistic freedom and freedom of the press.
On December 10, under the transitional government, famed cartoonist Al Azar resigned from the local daily newspaper La Razon. Commentators described Al Azar’s resignation as “part of a systematic harassment of press freedom” due to online harassment from undisclosed origins that led to what they described as “self-censorship.” La Razon announced the cartoonist had communicated to the newspaper’s leadership that “due to the siege he had experienced in the last few weeks due to his political cartoons…he could not continue his creative work in our editorial pages.”
Press and Media, Including Online Media: According to the Inter American Press Association, prior to the resignation of then president Morales on November 10, the Morales administration regularly attempted to disqualify the independent press by claiming it acted on behalf of the political opposition and spread “fake news” to generate social tension. 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.
Journalists faced threats to their work. In November 2018 the National Press Association of Bolivia (ANP) expressed concern regarding reports of police surveillance of journalists’ online activity, noting such surveillance put journalists at risk and severely limited their ability to investigate and report the news freely and accurately.
Prior to the resignation of then president Morales on November 10, media outlets alleged his government pressured news organizations to report favorably on government policies and retaliated against news organizations that did not comply. The 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. Government entities such as the National Tax Service, National Delivery Service, Business Authority, Telecommunications and Transport Regulation and Control Authority, Gaming Control Authority, Departmental Labor Directorates, and Vice Ministry for Communication Policies, which is responsible for monitoring free advertising, carried out inspections and applied fines many observers claimed were unwarranted. The ANP expressed concern that the government attacked independent news outlets and attempted to “economically suffocate” media entities that did not cater to the government. The allocation of official advertising often excluded media that questioned the actions of government, to the extent that some media fired investigative journalists due to fear of losing official advertising.
Violence and Harassment: As of September the ANP identified 92 cases of restrictions on freedom of the press, 61 of which were perpetrated by the Morales administration or targeted media critical of the Morales government. On October 31, the ANP reported 15 direct attacks against journalists immediately following the presidential election on October 20.
There were attacks and intimidation by local populace against reporters and media perceived critical of the Morales administration. On August 19, journalists were attacked by a group of persons in Cochabamba who were angry with the “unflattering” coverage the journalists gave to the Morales administration. In response to reports that groups loyal to the Morales government outside of city centers were attacking and harassing journalists, the ANP called for rural populations to “respect the work of journalists.”
During the Morales administration, the websites of the newspapers Sol de Pando, Agencia de Noticias Fides, La Razon, and Pagina Siete, which sometimes published articles critical of the Morales administration, were rendered unavailable by cyberattacks executed by unknown actors.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Prior to the resignation of then president Morales on November 10, his government censored journalists, and journalists practiced self-censorship due to fear of losing their jobs or losing access to government sources, in addition to fear of prosecution and harassment. Human rights organizations reported many reporters were dismissed for reporting on controversial topics that conflicted with the Morales administration.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but prior to the resignation of then president Morales on November 10, civil society groups, in particular but not limited to those critical of the government, faced harassment from Morales government officials.
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. A number of politicians opposed to the Morales administration with legal cases against them were prohibited from leaving the country and were required to turn in their passports.
f. Protection of Refugees
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: On March 17, police and immigration officials detained 14 Venezuelan migrants (three women and 11 men) from a migrant shelter in La Paz for having participated in a peaceful demonstration against human rights violations in Venezuela on March 15. According to migrant advocates and media reports, the officers took the migrants to the immigration office and accused them of “conspiracy” and “political activities in exchange for money.” On that same day, five of the migrants were deported; the remaining nine, who had requested asylum, were released. Five of the remaining migrants subsequently fled to Peru due to fear of further abuse. According to Amnesty International, those released feared more repression and arbitrary deportation.
Prior to the resignation of then president Morales on November 10, the Morales administration did not cooperate with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern. On December 13, under the transitional government, Foreign Minister Karen Longaric announced the country would provide refugee status to Venezuelan migrants. She explained the majority of Venezuelans were in Bolivia under an irregular status or with temporary permits due to the Morales administration’s regulations. With the financial backing of UNHCR, she announced the status of Venezuelans in the country would be changed to refugee status and future Venezuelan migrants would be admitted as refugees.
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. Despite these provisions, as of October the Morales administration had not given Venezuelan migrants asylum or refugee status. According to human rights and migrant advocates, no humanitarian visas were given to Venezuelan migrants from January to November. On December 13, the transitional government announced it would begin granting refugee status to Venezuelan migrants.
Employment: Refugees have the right to work once authorities grant their residency status but not while waiting on pending applications.
Durable Solutions: By law refugees have a path to naturalization, and the government assumes 90 percent of the fees associated with this process. The Morales government did not recognize Venezuelans as refugees or acknowledge the refugee crisis. As a result, as of November no Venezuelans had been granted access to the benefits of this process.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.