Bolivia is a constitutional, multiparty republic with an elected president and a bicameral legislature. In 2014, in a process deemed free but whose fairness was questioned by international observers, citizens re-elected President Evo Morales Ayma, leader of the Movement Toward Socialism Party (MAS), for a third term. In 2016 the government held a referendum to allow the president to seek a fourth term in office. Citizens voted the measure down in a process that international observers deemed mostly fair and free. In November 2017 the Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal struck down the constitution’s ban on term limits, in a controversial ruling that stated term limits violate an article of the American Convention on Human Rights that guarantees a right to political participation. On December 4, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal approved Morales’ petition to run for a fourth consecutive term in 2019.
Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
Human rights issues included reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings and torture by government officials; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; lack of judicial independence; political prosecutions; arbitrary detention; reports of censorship and physical attacks on journalists by state security forces; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; corruption in all levels of government; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons; mob violence; and forced labor and use of child labor.
The government took steps in some cases to prosecute members of the security services and other government officials who committed abuses, but inconsistent application of the law and a dysfunctional judiciary led to impunity.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
While the constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, the government frequently carried out reprisals against media outlets that expressed dissenting opinions. Government 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 sources reported the government pressured and intimidated them to report favorably about its policies, particularly by withholding of government advertising and imposing steep taxes.
Freedom of Expression: The government continued to denounce press critics and independent media sources. In February National Press Association President Marcelo Miralles Iporre told the Inter-American Court of Human Rights 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.”
In its 2017 annual report, the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights highlighted several limitations placed by the government on media, including the use of the term “the Cartel of Lies” to discredit journalists or pressure journalists who criticized the government, in addition to the discriminatory use of state advertising. The report noted verbal attacks by national and local officials against the press. Progovernment demonstrators and security forces physically attacked journalists during protests, and the justice system allowed “preventive imprisonment” of journalists with little evidence.
Press and Media Freedom: According to the Inter American Press Association, the government 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 in practice 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 (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 state advertising often excluded media that questioned the actions of government, to the extent that some media fired several investigative journalists due to fear of losing official advertising.
Violence and Harassment: From 2010 to 2017, the ANP reported 136 physical aggressions against journalists and other media members, as well as 155 cases of verbal aggressions and threats.
On August 9, military security forces beat two female journalists during the inauguration of the new presidential palace in La Paz and prevented other reporters from entering the location where President Morales was speaking.
The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression reported various cyberattacks against media outlets in 2017. For example, the websites of 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: 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. Human rights organizations reported many reporters were dismissed for reporting on controversial topics that conflicted with the government.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content. On November 28, in a widely circulated recording, purportedly of a briefing for President Morales, Police Commander Faustino Mendoza stated police officers systematically monitored journalist and opposition politicians on social networks. In the audio recording, Mendoza revealed that police had 84 social media accounts specifically used for this purpose. The National Association of the Press of Bolivia, which represented the main print media of the country, expressed its “deep concern for the police control and surveillance of the informative work of journalists.” The government sharply criticized the release of the recording but did not deny its authenticity.
Government employees faced reprisal for expressing support for initiatives, ideas, and events critical of the MAS administration online and on social media. Reprisals included termination of employment.
The number of fake accounts on social media such as Facebook and Twitter sharply increased, particularly those favoring the government and ruling party, during the year. The accounts regularly criticized social media posts made by opposition leaders while expressing support for content produced by the government. The government openly admitted to funding “cyberwarriors” who targeted opposition leaders on social media through fake accounts.
According to the International Telecommunication Union, 44 percent of the population used the internet in 2017.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events, although political considerations allegedly influenced academic appointments.
Although the constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, civil society groups, especially, but not limited to, those critical of the government, faced harassment from government officials.
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.
There were several demonstrations during the year defending the “21F” movement, which opposed Morales’ candidacy for president and rejected the constitutional change that ended presidential term limits. On May 29, during the South American Games in Cochabamba, a group of 21F supporters began shouting “Bolivia said no” and wore T-shirts with “21F” printed on the front. Police asked the protesters to cover their 21F shirts. After the incident the police subcommander, General Agustin Moreno, warned he would not allow 21F demonstrations during patriotic celebrations on the country’s national day in Potosi on August 6. In Potosi on August 6, police did not permit access to public space for those critical of the government. In September police in Santa Cruz and Cochabamba did not allow 21F supporters access to the main plaza and other public spaces.
On July 21, a small group of persons arrived at the Plaza Murillo in La Paz with 21F T-shirts. Within minutes a police contingent pushed the protesters out of the plaza and ended the protest.
According to the NGO UNIR Bolivia Foundation, on average there were approximately three different types of protests per day throughout the country between January and March. These demonstrations, radical protest actions, and confrontations with police resulted in one person dead and more than 100 injured.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government did not consistently respect this right. NGOs continued to be targets of government officials, including the president, vice president, and government ministers, if they operated in a manner perceived as adversarial to the government. Some NGOs alleged government registration mechanisms were purposefully stringent in order to deter an active civil society.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees 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.
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 opposition politicians with legal cases against them were prohibited from leaving the country and were required to turn in their passports.
PROTECTION OF 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.
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.