Protests repressed and disinformation legislation revoked in Bolivia

At the beginning of June 2020, Bolivia began easing quarantine measures and lifting some restrictions on movement. Local governments were allowed to establish additional measures according to the public health situation in their regions.

On 2nd June 2020, Bolivia’s electoral tribunal announced it had reached an agreement with political parties to hold general elections by 6th September 2020, after the coronavirus pandemic delayed the elections scheduled for May.

Peaceful Assembly

Dozens of Cochabamba residents joined peaceful demonstrations in May 2020 to protest the extension of quarantine measures in a context of hunger and lack of assistance. “The longer we stay isolated in our houses, the more water, food and energy we consume,” said one protester. Demonstrators also protested against Bolivia’s interim government and demanded elections.

On 11th May 2020, the police and military used tear gas to disperse protesters from the K'ara K'ara region of Cochabamba who demanded the resumption of economic activities. News outlets reported that police continued to repress demonstrators and with gas and rubber bullets. The situation developed into a conflict as protesters blocked access roads to demand more flexible quarantine rules, obstructing for several days essential services such as waste collection in the community. An agreement with local authorities was reached after ten days, ending the blockade and allowing the removal of several tons of accumulated waste.

Expression

On 20th May 2020, journalist Joana Tapia, cameraman Carlos Gómez and a driver working with local television channel ATB were attacked while covering demonstrations in K'aka K'ara, Cochabamba. According to press association Asociación Nacional de Prensa (ANP), the team crew was arriving to cover a meeting between the community and the authorities when they were attacked by a group of about six people using rocks and slingshots. According to the reporters, some stones broke through the window of their car and Gómez was injured on the chest during the attack.

Freedom of expression during the pandemic

On 13th May 2020, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Bolivia called on the country’s authorities to review and amend the legislation on disseminating information during the pandemic to avoid criminalising freedom of expression. As previously reported on the Monitor, in March 2020 the interim government issued a decree sanctioning those who “disinform or cause uncertainty” to the population during the pandemic. The legislation was criticised by civil society organisations and press freedom advocates, who said it could be used to persecute anyone criticising emergency policies. On 7th May 2020, the Jenine Áñez government published a new decree (4231) which expanded the original legislation, allowing criminal sanctions. On 14th May 2020, interim president Jenine Áñez revoked the two decrees following various criticisms by international and local organisations.

Local news outlets and Bolivian press association ANP have reported a concerning situation for press freedom in Bolivia, as newspapers face a mounting economic crisis. According to ANP, the economic recession due to the health emergency has aggravated the situation for the independent media, which had been struggling with financial suffocation imposed by the previous government and with attacks since the political crisis of October 2019. During the period following elections, some Bolivian newspapers decided to suspend their print editions because of safety risks. According to ANP, this heightened crisis could lead several newspaper companies to bankruptcy, representing a serious blow to press freedom in Bolivia.

Association

On 26th May 2020, Amnesty International received a public letter from the Bolivian Government, signed by the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. As previously reported on the Monitor, the organisation had asked the government for clarification on reports that 67 people had been detained and prosecuted for “crimes against public health”. In the letter, the Deputy Minister accuses Amnesty International of being “biased”, ignoring the situation and Bolivian legislation. Amnesty stated that while the letter assures that due process guarantees were respected for the 67 people detained, the government failed to provide the further information requested. “Amnesty International is concerned at the atmosphere of harassment and threats against political opponents or those perceived as such,” reads a statement by the organisation.