Bolivian journalists protect freedom of expression, 2010

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly versionPDF versionPDF version
Time Period:  
Time period notes: 
Protests began at some point during the last two weeks of September. The campaign slowed in December, after the government rejected the petition.
6 January
Location and Goals
Location Description: 
Protests took place all throughout the country
To eliminate Articles 16 and 23 of the Law Against Racism and All Forms of Discrimination, which subject media outlets to punishment for publishing "discriminatory" content at the government's discretion.

Since taking office in 2005, Bolivian President Evo Morales had an increasingly tenuous relationship with the domestic media. On multiple occasions he accused newspapers of being the mouthpieces of the opposition, particularly if they criticized a state policy. The growing polarization between Morales’ Movement for Socialism Party (MAS) and the opposition parties was often reflected in the “media war” between state-owned news outlets and privately owned companies. Parties on both sides perpetuated the war by threatening journalists across the political spectrum. In the last six months of 2009, for instance, Freedom House tallied 111 instances in which journalists had been verbally or physically assaulted, with the majority of attacks targeting nongovernmental media outlets. In some cases, journalists were arrested for making disparaging remarks about Bolivia’s indigenous population and the president’s indigenous origins. In other cases, they were attacked and threatened for investigating government corruption.

On 10 September 2010, the Chamber of Deputies approved a bill entitled the Law Against Racism and All Forms of Discrimination (Ley Contra el Racismo y Toda Forma de Discriminación). The comprehensive law included measures to create the Committee Against Racism, prohibit discrimination in both public and private arenas, and prevent the media from publishing or broadcasting racist content. The latter provision sparked resistance from media workers across the country, who took to the streets to protest articles 16 and 23 of the law. Press workers were primarily concerned about article 16, which allowed the government to impose sanctions or suspend the operating license of any media that endorsed or published discriminatory ideas. This meant that the implications would be severe for any journalist who reported a racist remark as part of a developing story. Article 23 further tightened restrictions by allowing for journalists and media owners to be prosecuted and imprisoned for one to five years for “crimes against human dignity” without immunity protections. Both articles, according to campaign leaders, would lead to censorship of the media by punishing journalists for reporting any ideas deemed “discriminatory.”

Near the end of September, press workers in Santa Cruz initiated a series of marches and to bring attention to the law and pressure the Senate to revise the lower house’s version. On 22 September, the organization Reporters Without Borders lent their support to the protesters by issuing a statement denouncing the law and calling for revisions to article 16. It should be noted that Reporters Without Borders offered an alternative solution to the protesters’ demands: while the Bolivian press groups wanted to eliminate articles 16 and 23 altogether, Reporters Without Borders suggested that the language of article 16 be applied only to media that explicitly condoned racism or discrimination.

On 1 October press unions in 11 cities mobilized in opposition to the law. In announcing the day of strikes and marches, union leaders emphasized that although journalists supported the spirit of the law, they were demanding revisions of the articles that limited their freedom of expression. The protests started in Tarija, where television and radio stations stopped their transmissions for six hours during the day. During that period, journalists working for television, radio and newspapers marched through the city. Workers in Sucre, Beni, and Pando also ceased transmission for one hour and held their own marches to demand revisions of the law. The strongest protests emerged in the region of Potosí, where media workers participated in a 24-hour work stoppage.

On the evening of 5 October, the Senate approved the law against racism and discrimination without modifications. Although some opposition senators, such as Bernard Gutierrez, criticized articles 16 and 23 as a threat to freedom of expression, the law passed with more than the requisite two-thirds majority. Eugenio Rojas, a prominent MAS representative and President of the Senate, argued that the government had presented alternative proposals to members of the press, but they had rejected the revisions.

On 7 October, most Bolivian newspapers published blank front pages as a coordinated statement against the racism law. Across the front pages read one headline in bold: “There is no democracy without freedom of expression.” Juan Javier Zeballos, executive director of the National Press Association (ANP), led the mass action by calling on newspaper owners who constituted the ANP’s membership to participate. The action was in part a response to a speech delivered by President Morales the week before in El Alto, in which he threatened to cancel the frequency of any audiovisual medium that incurred racism or discrimination.

That same day, 24 groups working within the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) showed their solidarity with the campaign by sending a letter of protest to Vice President Álvaro García (who also served as president of the National Assembly). The letter, which was signed by prominent human rights groups such as Freedom House and the World Press Freedom Committee, asked García to remove articles 16 and 23 to protect freedom of expression.

In addition to the protest headlines, at least six members of the Federation of Bolivian Press Workers in La Paz initiated a hunger strike. The duration of the hunger strikes is unknown.

On 8 October, three days after the bill went through the Senate, President Evo Morales signed off on the law. Rojas announced that the law would be implemented immediately, disregarding a passage stipulating that 90 days be allowed for the Senate to define the specific regulations for enforcement.

In response to the law’s ratification, press organizations in every provincial capital and multiple cities initiated their own acts of protest on 8 October. In Cochabamba, journalists gathered on the Plaza 14 de Septiembre, where they drew their own blood and used it to write on cards defending freedom of expression (these were left in the street as a public statement). In Sucre, protesters marched with signs reading “Yes to democracy, no to dictatorship” (dictadura no, democracia sí). In La Paz, journalists held a march in conjunction with the Federation of Neighborhood Committees from El Alto.

On 12 October, the National Press Association of Bolivia announced the start of a petition to collect one million signatures to demand a referendum on articles 16 and 23 of the law. The petition, whose slogan was “one million signatures for freedom of expression,” would be organized by four journalist associations: the National Press Association, the Trade Union Federation of Press Workers, the Press Association of La Paz, the Bolivian Association of Broadcasters.

Following the announcement on 12 October, journalists in Cochabama held a march that ended on the Plaza 14 de Septiembre, where they held a mock funeral to mourn the death of freedom of expression. Some protesters marched with candles as a vigil, while others carried a coffin filled with cameras and recorders down the main plaza.

Although the press group asserted that one million signatures would be enough to present a proposal for a legislative initiative on the contested articles, some government representatives denounced the effort as unlawful. In a press conference held on the same day, Vice Minister of Governmental Coordination, Wilfredo Chávez, argued that any law against discrimination was allowed under the constitution and that only the Senate had the final say on the law.

Chávez’s insistence on the law’s total legality was directly challenged on 16 November, when UN representative Navanethem Pillay, high commissioner for human rights, issued a statement in which he reminded the government of its responsibility to conform to international human rights standards. Pillay’s statement concluded his five-day visit during which he met with President Morales, as well as representatives from the four leading organizations in the resistance campaign. In the meeting, Pillay offered a mixed review: while he supported the government’s efforts to combat racism, he also warned that Bolivia would have to comply with the International Protocol on Civil and Political Rights, which protected freedom of expression. Although he did not directly denounce the two articles in question, he said that limitations on the press would have to be adjusted to international standards.

On 26 November, the groups submitted a sample of their signatures to Álvaro García. Despite their stated goal of gathering one million signatures, the eight books submitted to the government contained only 32,000. On 2 December, García returned the books to the campaigners and held a press conference in which he rejected their request on the grounds that the government had not yet developed regulations for citizens’ initiatives. García said that the Legislative Assembly would only consider the signatures once they decided on the procedural standards for citizens’ initiative, and that given the backlog of pending legislation, the law would have to be considered in 2011. He also critiqued the groups for not delivering the hundreds of thousands of signatures they promised and insinuated that the campaign’s leaders had lied all along about the extent of their popular support. The associations defended themselves in a joint public statement released to the public on the same day. In their statement, representatives affirmed that the 32,000 submitted were only a representative sample, and that the other 400,000 signatures were still being verified in various provinces. They also claimed that MAS representatives in the legislative assembly had threatened to burn the books of signatures.

On 6 January 2011, two government ministers, Zulma Yugar and Nilda Copa, announced the revised set of regulations. Although the government did not eliminate article 16, the regulations did clarify the original measure, which would punish any media source for publishing racist remarks. Under the new statute, the news media would only be liable to punishment if the content was defined as one of the following: deliberate statements of racism (on the part of the journalist); dissemination of racist ideas in the form of propaganda or advertisements; or defense of a racist or discriminatory act. The newly defined regulations would therefore permit a print journalist to record someone’s discriminatory remarks and publish them, as long as the journalist did not condone the remarks or express their own personal biases in the process. For live broadcasts, journalists would be responsible for interrupting racist comments and notifying viewers of the discriminatory nature of the comments. Besides clarifying the content restrictions, the newly revised law reversed the original penalties, which gave the government power to shut down any media facility for violations. The regulations instead stipulated that the government could suspend a media outlet for up to 360 days, and only after its third offense.

Research Notes
"Adopted Unchanged, Anti-racism Law’s Media Clauses Will Need Judicious Enforcement." Reporters Without Borders. Reporters Without Borders, 11 Oct. 2010. Web. 25 Nov. 2011. <,38421.html>.

"After Controversial Anti-racism Law, New Media Legislation in 2011." Reporters Without Borders. Reporters Without Borders, 16 Dec. 2010. Web. 26 Nov. 2011. <,39058.html>.

"Anti-Racism Law To Be Implemented Immediately, Even Without Regulations." Bolivia Weekly. Bolivia Weekly, 8 Oct. 2010. Web. 25 Nov. 2011. <>.

"Anti-racism Law’s New Regulations Eliminate Vague Wording and Soften Penalties." Reporters Without Borders. Reporters Without Borders, 6 Jan. 2011. Web. 26 Nov. 2011. <,39227.html>.

"Artículos Mordaza: El “Vice” Devuelve Los Libros De Firmas." Los Tiempos, 3 Dec. 2010. Web. <>.

Freedom House Report on Freedom of the Press, Bolivia. Rep. UNHCR: The UN Refugee Agency, 1 Oct. 2010. Web. 26 Nov. 2011. <>.

"Journalists Strike to Defend Freedom of Expression." Bolivia Weekly. Bolivia Weekly, 1 Oct. 2010. Web. 25 Nov. 2011. <>.

"Journalists’ Unions Still Protest at Dangers in Anti-racism Law." Reporters Without Borders. Reporters Without Borders, 15 Nov. 2010. Web. 25 Nov. 2011. <,38813.html>.

"La SIP Pedirá a Morales Cambios En La Ley Para No Afectar La Libertad De Expresión." Google News. Google News, 14 Oct. 2010. Web. 26 Nov. 2011. <>.

Magro, Maira. "Bolivia Ends Comment Phase for Controversial Anti-racism Law." Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. University of Texas, 22 Nov. 2010. Web. 26 Nov. 2011. <>.

Magro, Maira. "Bolivian Newspapers Publish Blank Front Pages to Protest Anti-racism Law; Some Journalists Go on Hunger Strike." Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. University of Texas, 7 Oct. 2010. Web. 26 Nov. 2011. <>.

"Miembros De IFEX Muestran Preocupación Por Proyecto De Ley Que Amenaza a La Libertad De Prensa." Letter to Álvaro García Linera. 7 Oct. 2010. Asociación Nacional De La Prensa. Web. 26 Nov. 2011. <>.

"Periodistas Paran Y Rechazan Mordaza En La Ley Antirracismo." La Patria. La Patria, 2 Oct. 2011. Web. <>.

"Pillay Apoya Leyes De Evo, Pero Pide Respetar DDHH." Los Tiempos. Los, 17 Nov. 2010. Web. <>.

"Senate Approves Anti-Racism Law." Bolivia Weekly. Bolivia Weekly, 6 Oct. 2010. Web. <>.

Additional Notes: 
To understand the political context of this case, particularly with regards to attacks on journalists leading up to the law and the growing polarization between state-owned and private media organizations, refer to Freedom House's annual reports on press freedom in Bolivia-
Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Carmen Smith-Estrada, 25/11/2011