Bolivia Debates Media Law Reform

Source: NACLA Report on the Americas

Thousands of MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) supporters filled the Plaza Murillo on Sunday, December 6, to catch a glimpse of the re-elected Bolivian president Evo Morales on the balcony of the Presidential Palace. Amidst the fireworks, clenched fists, celebrations and MAS flags read a banner, "Now it is time to nationalize the private media." Nationalization and Evo Morales go hand in hand, as the MAS leader has returned control of the nation’s resources to the Bolivian state since taking power in 2006. But the banner did not represent an ideological position as much it reflected the anger generated by the opposition the extremely popular Morales continues to face from the country’s privately owned media.

Despite the country’s impressive economic performance in the face of the global downturn, the vast investment in the country’s infrastructure and Morales’s fulfilment of most of his electoral agenda, his relationship with the private media continues to be fractious.

In the week leading up to the historic elections (historic for the number of Bolivians that voted and the landslide victory for MAS), Morales clashed with local journalists. "Perhaps a hunger strike is needed, to free you from you owners," Morales told reporters just days before voters went to the polls. It was in part self-reference – Morales conducted a five-day hunger strike in April to push forward the approval of a new election law in the face of resistance of the opposition-controlled senate. But his comment pointed to the vested interests of the large media corporations in Bolivia, which, according to Morales, impose an anti-MAS editorial line.

The media in Bolivia is largely controlled by a small group of corporations, in particular the Spanish Grupo Prisa, Grupo Líder, and the vociferously anti-MAS Universal de Televisión (UNITEL). The UNITEL network is owned by the Montesinos family, which participated in the Sánchez de Lozada government that was ousted by a popular uprising in 2003. Protected by legislation over printed press that dates back to the 1920s, and legislation pushed through in the neoliberal 1990s, private media sets the conservative opposition’s agenda.

"I wouldn’t even talk about ‘coverage’ of these elections," MAS congressman Gustavo Torrico tells NACLA while waiting for Morales to appear in Plaza Murillo on the day of the elections. "I would talk about the partisanship of the Bolivian media," he says. "It has reached such a level that they should name themselves mouthpieces for the opposition, and stop hiding behind the smokescreen of ‘free press,’" he says.

He goes on to give an example he had seen just hours before. "The political analysts on the broadcaster UNITEL said earlier today ‘MAS won with around 60%, but democracy lost.’ Am I the stupid one who doesn’t understand what’s going on?! How does democracy win, if it is not with the vote? You can’t separate the people and the vote in a democratic system!"

It is the democratic system that permitted nearly 200,000 Bolivians living abroad, as well as the local population to ratify Evo Morales as president in the historic elections earlier this month. Private media operates as the effective opposition to MAS, given the poverty of ideas and leadership amongst the other political parties and movements in Bolivia. And many MAS supporters are calling for new media legislation that would proportion the same representation in the media as the various social movements and groups have won on a political level.

Community and social media in Bolivia have strong traditions, with roots in the militant mining community. In the late 1940s a number of radio stations emerged that were created, financed and run by the very communities that they served – the miners and their families. They spoke out about the injustices they faced, and provided a dissident voice against the oligarchy that ran the industry. After the 1952 revolution, with which vast agrarian reform and universal suffrage were introduced, the number of local radio stations grew, and community radio flourished.

Yet the power and influence that the miners were harnessing through their independently produced radio did not go unnoticed. In 1967 the military massacred workers in San Juan at the Siglo XX tin mine and destroyed radio installations both as a warning and attempt to silence critical voices. The example of miner’s radio offers the reference point for independent media in Bolivia, but community radio stations continue to be excluded from the legal framework of the media.

A potential change in legislation in Bolivia would not be without precedent in Latin America. Venezuela, Argentina and Ecuador, for example, have all recently introduced significant new legislation in relation to the media. Hugo Chávez pushed forward new legislation after the complicit and active role in the 2002 coup played by the anti-Chávez media. In Argentina, the government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner recently passed a new media law to prevent media monopolies. Ecuador’s Rafael Correa has spoken of the need to find a "balance" in the power of information that mass media possesses.

Many journalists in the private media are concerned about what MAS’s forthcoming term in office will bring. Three days before the presidential elections, the journalist Tuffí Aré Vásquez wrote an opinion piece titled "What will 2010 bring for journalists?" in La Prensa. "Our nerves [in the press] are based on facts. The President has classed the majority of the non-government media as his chief opposition. He humiliated one journalist at the Government Palace. His supporters have attacked journalists. He even called us ‘farm chickens.’"

While private media defends its corner, it is not as clear-cut that MAS will push forward a new media law. In 2007, the former journalist and MAS congressman Iván Canelas proposed a new media law, but MAS quickly distanced itself from the proposal, stating that it was a personal project, not one endorsed by the movement.

"I’m not 100% sure that President Morales will push through new legislation," says MAS congressman Gustavo Torrico. Indeed, any move from Morales to propose new legislation would be interpreted as a unilateral attack on the private media. Yet Morales may find that the diverse social movements that constitute MAS demand change.


Joel Richards is a NACLA Research Associate.