Bolivians Protest New Gag Law

The Bolivian government has passed a new "anti-racism and anti-discrimination" law which has caused protests throughout the country. While the great majority of the population of Bolivia fully supports a law that makes it illegal to discriminate and be racist, it contains two articles that have greatly alarmed the population.

Article 16 says: El medio de comunicación que autorizare o publicare ideas racistas y discriminatorias será pasible de sanciones económicas y de suspensión de licencia de funcionamiento, sujeto a reglamentación.

Translation: Any means of communication that authorizes or publishes racist and discriminatory ideas shall be liable to economic sanctions and its operating license may be suspended, subject to regulations.

Article 23 says: Cuando el hecho sea cometido por una trabajadora o trabajador de un medio de comunicación social, o propietario del mismo, no podrá alegarse inmunidad ni fuero alguno.

Translation: When the act is committed by an employee of a means of social communication, or the owner him/herself, no type of immunity or exemption may be alleged.

The articles in question explicitly refer to the press and threaten to sanction or revoke the operating licenses of any media that print racist or discriminatory comments. What greatly concerns journalists, owners of newspapers, TV and radio stations and the population in general, is that this law, as written, will threaten freedom of speech and expression as well as democracy.

While members of the media have made it clear they do agree racism and discrimination should be sanctioned, they are worried the law will be used politically to silence the media, especially any media that publish or broadcast opinions of dissent against the government. This is why they are now calling this law "la ley mordaza" (the gag law). Their concern is that, as written, the law is unclear and leaves too much open to arbitrary interpretation and application. Read the law here.

For example, if a journalist is interviewing a subject and that person makes a racist or discriminatory comment, and the decision is made to publish or broadcast that portion of the interview, (or worse yet, if the interview is live), the newspaper, radio station, or TV station that publishes or broadcasts it can be sanctioned or lose its operating license.

As another example, if a journalist, newscaster or commentator, while on duty, makes a racist or discriminatory comment, the owners of the media that person works for can be sanctioned and the newspaper, radio or TV station may lose its operating license. Per the Bolivian constitution and various international treaties regarding human rights that Bolivia has signed, each individual person is responsible for his/her own actions and no other individual can be tried or punished for a crime committed by that person.

Websites are not immune or exempt either. They risk sanctions now if they, or even an unknown third party, publishes racist or discriminatory comments on the site, such as through a public forum, for example. Forum moderators fear they will be forced to censor comments posted.

In addition, it is unclear who will decide which words or comments are to be considered racist or discriminatory and which are not. The danger lies in that a word or comment may seem or feel racist or discriminatory to one person but not to another. And any word or comment that seems or feels racist or offensive to a person may be deemed discriminatory.

Journalists and media owners state that the government, by means of this law, will obligate them to act as "censors", by requiring them to decide whether or not something someone has said is racist or discriminatory and whether or not to print or broadcast a comment. Media owners may be liable to sanctions or to losing their business if an employee of theirs make a racial or discriminatory comment, even if they do not personally agree with it.

Mostly, however, they are afraid the government will use this "muzzle" law to sanction any comment or expression of dissent against the government by deeming it to be "discriminatory". There is no specific list of words or comments that are considered racist or discriminatory to use as a guide.

As a result, hundreds of journalists and other employees of newspapers, radio and TV stations have staged protests throughout the country since the first day of October. They believe freedom of speech and expression will be curtailed by this law and that it threatens democracy.

In addition to journalists, comedians and even indigenous associations have been protesting in multiple ways. The media believe the law specifically targets them. The fear is that Bolivia will suffer the same plight as Venezuela, where President Hugo Chavez has shut down hundreds of radio and TV stations known as "voices of dissent".

Comedians also fear they will be sanctioned, targeted or jailed if their comedic acts contain any comments against the current government or acts that poke fun at the customs or traditions of any specific culture. They even fear that using a specific "accent" during a show or skit may be considered racist or discriminatory. Numerous indigenous organizations have also spoken out against this law, stating it is anti-constitutional and threatens democracy.

The government claims it consulted with NGOs and the indigenous "social movements" to draft this law and despite the many protests, some violent, refused to negotiate the wording of the law, which it passed on October 8th.

The media, also a "social movement" through their unions, were not consulted regarding the wording of this law, although it directly affects them. President Evo Morales did finally agree to a one-hour meeting with some media union heads; however, afterward he urged Congress to pass the law without changing "a single comma" and pleaded with the indigenous social movements to back the law, which they did by threatening to encircle the Congress building until the law was passed. Outside Congress at Plaza Murillo, although indigenous protesters were allowed to stage their protests, but the police blocked journalists from entering the plaza to make their voices heard.

Members of the media are currently participating in marches, protests, and hunger strikes. Journalists can be seen in almost every major city wearing "muzzles". In Santa Cruz journalists drew blood from their arms and used it to paint signs that read "freedom of expression is dead", "democracy is dead", and other similar messages. Large rolls of newspaper print were taken to the main plaza and rolled out so the population could write their opinions on them.

In the city of El Alto, typically a bastion of support for President Evo Morales' socialist MAS party, members of the media symbolically imprisoned themselves and on October 7th, major newspapers throughout the country published their newspapers with front pages that were completely blank except for the words "without freedom of expression there can be no democracy" in a historic act of protest.

In other cities, the media carried coffins over which they draped signs that read "Freedom of Expression is Dead - RIP" (Rest in Peace).

Members of Congress who oppose the law wore black and white striped t-shirts (symbolic of imprisonment) to the congressional sessions in which the law was being debated. There were numerous heated arguments in Congress, where President Morales' socialist MAS party holds a clear majority and has been immovable. No amount of debating or protesting has been effective in securing consideration of any other point of view.

The government has promised the law will not be used to target the media and has repeatedly stated that the media need not fear it. However, after over a week of debate in Congress, on the morning when the law was passed, journalists (except for members of Channel 7, the government-owned television station) were impeded from entering the government palace to cover the story.

In Santa Cruz the general population has been expressing its support for the media by signing notarized books. Over 100,000 signatures have been collected in just 9 days and about 400,000 more (or the equivalent of 20% of Bolivia's voting population) are needed in order to call for a national referendum to overturn this law or obligate changes to be discussed and/or made.

The Bolivian media also believe this law goes against the Bolivian Constitution.

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