For more than a decade, the government has meddled with Bolivia’s news media. Following the collapse of the Morales regime, the country’s journalists want to put paid to that, once and for all.

In 2014, Virginie Poyetton, a researcher, found that more than half of Bolivia’s journalists have faced some form of censorship. The truth is that this terrifying fact was hardly shocking in Bolivia, a landlocked Latin American nation of 11 million people where censorship has a long tradition – particularly under the rule of Evo Morales, the man who led the Bolivian nation since 2006.

Under Morales’s rule, the control of the media by the government reached unprecedented levels – but after Mr Morales fled the country, following street protests triggered by a controversial election last month, a new era beckons for independent journalism in Bolivia; or at least that’s what journalists in the country are hoping for.

“After the fall of Morales, many things are changing,” said Mauricio Canelas, project manager with Los Tiempos, an independent newspaper from Cochabamba, Bolivia’s third largest city.

Channel 7 of TV Bolivia, the country’s state-run television network used by the Morales regime to spew state propaganda, is now under the control of the transitional government, which will hopefully be less high-handed. Cambio, a state-funded newspaper established by the Movement for Socialism (MAS), Mr Morales’ party, has recently changed its name to Bolivia, as it’s trying to refashion itself as an independent outlet. All community radio stations in the country, including government-controlled channels like Patria Nueva:Illimani, are undergoing in-depth audits aimed at investigating fraudulent practices within management, which were common in the past.

Many journalists from La Razon, one of Bolivia’s most influential newspapers, controlled by Carlos Gill, a Venezuelan businessman known for his support for the Morales regime, have left in the past month or so, as they no longer want to be affiliated with a government paper.

Foreign propaganda is also rooted out. TeleSur, a Latin American television network co-financed by the Venezuelan, Cuban and Nicaraguan governments to spread socialist propaganda, has been scrapped by all cable operators in Bolivia. Finally, the disappearance of Jaime Iturri, a pro-government journalist who controlled the editorial agenda at ATB (a television chain owned by businessmen close to MAS), from the television programs, is probably the most conspicuous sign of change, local journalists say. Mr Iturri’s partner in ATB, Marcelo Hurtado, is being investigated for his participation in a string of fraudulent schemes used by the Morales government to control various businesses, including media groups.

Morales’ Lapdogs

The Bolivian media has for decades been extremely polarized between a strong, lavishly funded, government-controlled media sector, and a smaller, far frailer group of independent news outlets.

During his 14 years in power, Mr Morales built an effective propaganda machine consisting of state-controlled media outlets and newly launched media companies, many of them led by Walter Chavez, Mr Morales’ former communications strategist. Mr Chavez is a Peruvian journalist who came to Bolivia as a political refugee to escape accusations of ties with Peru’s Marxist guerrilla group Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA). He handled Mr Morales’ three successful electoral campaigns between 2005 and 2014.

Mr Morales rose to power in the mid-2000s. A former leader of a coca-growing farmer union in the region of Chapare, Cochabamba, he was seen as a leader able to bring real change to a country hobbled by corrupt politics and a fragile rule of law. One of the MAS’ founders, Mr Morales won popular support with a political program targeting the Bolivian oligarchy and the American domination in Latin America, as well as promises to defend the rights of indigenous people.

For Mr Morales, independent media were simply enemies, an excuse he used to build a media empire of his own. “The strong communication [strategy] helped Evo Morales stay in power,” Mr Canelas said. During the Morales regime, independent media were regularly the target of tax inspections or threatened with cuts in state ad allocations, an important source of revenue for many media outlets. Such attacks led to increased self-censorship among journalists, many of whom at some point or another resigned from their jobs.

At the same time, the government routinely blackmailed media owners, threatening to confiscate their companies in other industries. Oftentimes, Mr Morales’ supporters, boisterous, heavily armed coca growers with links to drug trafficking cartels, were enlisted by the government to intimidate journalists and news outlets.

In Cochabamba, where Mr Morales has its strongest base due to its proximity to the coca leaf growing region of Chapare, the newspaper Los Tiempos constantly came under such attacks. To stave off criticism on the internet, a space that is more difficult to control than traditional media, the government created armies of “digital warriors” paid to aggressively spread pro-government content and lies about civil society groups critical of the president.

The state-controlled media remained loyal to Mr Morales until he fled to Mexico last month, waxing lyrical about his electoral victory and rebuffing accusations of electoral fraud made by the opposition and international watchdogs. They accused Luis Fernando Camacho, head of Pro-Santa Cruz Civic Committee, a prominent NGO, of staging a coup with the support of Marco Pumari, a civil society leader from Potosi, which is a southern Bolivian county known for its precious metal resources.

Mr Morales became president in 2005 with 54% of the votes. He stayed in power after another electoral victory in 2010 and a change of the constitution in 2009 that discounted his first presidential term, allowing him to run again five years later. Nonetheless, a series of corruption scandals, including a case that involved Mr Morales’ former lover, Gabriela Zapata, torpedoed his popularity. In 2016, he organized a referendum, which he lost, to get Bolivians’ permission to run for president again, for the fourth time. Unshaken, with the help of Luis Almagro, the General Secretary of the Organization of American States (OAS), an intergovernmental organization co-funded by South American governments and the United States, Mr Morales forced the Constitutional Court of Bolivia to allow him another run.

The elections last month were marred by irregularities, according to electoral observers. Massive protests erupted, first in Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s most populous city with over 1.4 million people and its main business hub. However, after 20 October 2019, the fateful election day, an increasing number of media outlets shed their fears and began to report freely on political affairs. They include the television networks Red Unitel and Red Uno, Canal Universitario, a television channel airing from its base in the Bolivian capital city of La Paz, the newspapers El Deber, based in Santa Cruz, Pagina Siete from La Paz and Los Tiempos in Cochabamba, and the radio channels Fides and Panamericana.

The Spanish channel of the international broadcaster CNN played a crucial role in covering the Bolivian crisis thanks to the journalist Fernando del Rincon and his program Conclusions. “As the winds of freedom and democracy could be felt in our country, journalists were able to report more freely and exercise their journalistic work without the pressures of a totalitarian government,” said Mr Canelas.

In the Wind of Change

However, to truly become an independent, vibrant and sustainable sector, Bolivian media needs thorough reform.

One important change, local journalists say, is the transformation of the state media. Following the collapse of the Morales regime, the state-owned media is expected to stop being an MAS mouthpiece. Second, independent media is not likely to face the sort of pressures it grappled with during Mr Morales’ days. Third, a more equitable distribution of state ad cash is likely to help media outlets improve their business. The internet is also going to contribute to a more diverse, open and competitive media sector. Already, Bolivians frequently use social media such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp to discuss political matters. Young people especially are more enthusiastically than ever before getting involved in political debates.

If Bolivia’s emerging political power will support, or at least not oppose, these changes, the country’s journalism is finally going to see rosier days.

Photo: Courtesy of Los Tiempos