Civil society organisations accuse Bolivian government of creating a hostile environment for HRDs
On 13th June 2019, Amnesty International published a report on the hostility faced by human rights defenders in Bolivia. The document was written in ahead of Bolivia's Universal Periodic Review (UPR) which will take place at the November 2019 session of the Human Rights Council. Amnesty International highlighted that human rights defenders and civil society organisations face a variety of threats and accusations by high-level authorities, including President Evo Morales and his ministers. One example, previously reported by the CIVICUS Monitor, took place in October 2018, when Minister of Government Carlos Romero accused the CSO, Asamblea Permanente de Derechos Humanos (Permanent Assembly of Human Rights) and its President, Amparo Carvajal, of sponsoring criminal organisations. Persistent statements of this nature question the Bolivia government's commitment to a robust and independent civil society. In Amnesty's analysis, it is further alarming that the only recommendation made on human rights defenders in Bolivia's last UPR (2014) was rejected by the country.
In Bolivia's Los Yungas region, where coca cultivation is legal, coca growers organised protests and blocked passage of key roads in June and July 2019. From the 26th June 2019, members of the Asociación Departamental de Productores de Hoja de coca (Departmental Association of Coca Leaf Producers - ADEPCOCA) began organising blockades to a road leading to the Yungas region. Police acted to disperse these demonstrations, but they continued over the next few days. While demonstrations were initially organised following the assassination of a local leader from ADEPCOCA, there have also been broader demands regarding government policy toward other coca grower unions as well as denunciation of government attempts to intervening in the organisation's management.
According to news reports, the protests have been strongly repressed by authorities. Police Commander Yuri Calderón has stated that some demonstrators have used dynamite and other explosives against police forces, leading to their arrest and detention. However, ADEPCOCA and supporters - including the President of the Permanent Human Rights Assembly of Bolivia (APDHB) - have argued that the Bolivian police planted these explosives in an attempt to delegitimise the protests.
In a positive development, on 30th April 2019, the Asociación Nacional de la Prensa de Bolivia (ANPB - National Press Association of Bolivia) and the Bolivian government reached an agreement to repeal laws that require the country's media outlets to publish government campaigns free of charge. Earlier in the year, in March 2019, the Sociedad Interamericana de Prensa (Inter-American Press Association - SIP) published a report drawing attention to the issue. It highlighted that the 13 laws regulating the matter weakened the independence of journalists and media because of their "political and ideological" character. These laws affected private and independent newspapers and, according to SIP, caused "financial asphyxiation", generating financial losses of up to 30% in advertising income for these publications. These economic losses could result in long-term effects, leading to staff reduction and even to the closure of some news outlets.
The positive developments come at a time when media freedom in Bolivia is under the spotlight. Recently, Bolivia ranked 113rd in the Reporters Without Borders’ 2019 World Press Freedom Index, dropping three places compared to 2018. RSF highlighted the climate of censorship experienced by the press in Bolivia, as Evo Morales' government seeks to control information and moves to silence the most critical voices in the country. Journalists who are regarded as overly troublesome are often subjected to judicial harassment, according to RSF; this, "combined with arbitrary arrests and a high level of impunity for violence against journalists" has also fostered self-censorship in the media.
Although the government has criticised this report, recent cases denounced by the National Press Association of Bolivia corroborate RSF's analysis. The first case occurred on 7th May 2019, when journalist Edwin Valda announced the suspension of his radio program "Pares opuestos" after three years due to pressure from the municipal government of the city of Potosí. According to Valda, his programme was discontinued because its criticism of the administration of Mayor William Cervantes of the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS). In another unrelated incident, on 1st May 2019, journalist Juan Pablo Guzmán from Bolivisión network reported that the Ministry of Communication prepares interview schedules for some of the local television channels. Guzmán denounced that questions are often agreed in advance with the Ministry, ensuring the exclusion of any lines of inquiry that could make interviewed officials uncomfortable:
"Today, many interviewees from government ranks get questions they want to be asked, which are previously agreed with the media outlet. The instruction is to "let officials speak" and not "bother them."
On 20th June 2019, the National Press Association of Bolivia (ANPB) and the Association of Journalists of La Paz issued a joint statement condemning threats made by María Aregene Simone Cuellar, a senator for the MAS party, against Radio San Miguel. Cuellar filed a criminal complaint against Radio San Miguel's head of press for "political harassment". Located in Riberalta, Radio San Miguel asserts that this complaint is a retaliatory measure, because the Radio recently denounced irregularities in voter registration in the city.