Thousands March for Freedom of Expression in Bolivia

A journalist's microphone hangs from a noose.

A journalist's microphone hangs from a noose.

A journalist's microphone hangs from a noose.
Life is nothing if freedom is lost.
Wearing a muzzle and chains.
The public hugs and thanks journalists on hunger strike.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010. Thousands marched in support of Freedom of Expression and Freedom of the Press this morning in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, in protest against articles 16 and 23 of the new Law Against Racism and All Forms of Discrimination and in support of media members on hunger strike.


Twenty-eight journalists and other members of the media have been on hunger strike in Santa Cruz for the past nine days to protest the two controversial articles of the law which establish sanctions, the withdrawal of operating licenses, and even possible imprisonment for journalists and media owners who publish or broadcast any racial or discriminatory statements, even if they are made by third parties.

The press, and a large part of the Bolivian population, fear the government will use this law to silence media establishments known to run stories in favor of the opposition. For this reason the law has come to be known as "la ley mordaza" (the muzzle law).

Protesters gathered at the Plaza del Estudiante, about 10 blocks from the city's central plaza, to which they then marched while carrying flags and signs. Many wore handmade muzzles of different types and t-shirts with messages such as "freedom of expression", "the struggle continues", and "no to the muzzle law" to express their rejection of the law and their support for the media and freedom of speech in general.

Members of the media are quick to ensure they are not against the law itself, nor are they against sanctioning racism or discrimination. They are asking only that the government derogate the two polemic articles.

To this end, the public has shown up in droves to sign notarized ledgers which will be used to request a national public referendum be held regarding this issue, as the government did not discuss the law with the press prior to drafting and passing it. In order for a referendum to be called, 20% of the voting-aged public (or about 1 million signatures) would have to be collected.

The government has minimized the importance of media and public protests calling them unnecessary and illogical and has stated it will not hold a referendum even if the correct amount of signatures are collected, as per the new constitution a new referendum law must be discussed first. President García Linera indicated today that "it could take weeks or months" for that to happen.

Regardless, citizens seem eager to sign the ledgers, even if only as a measure of protest, in various cities. In La Paz 12,000 signatures were collected on the first day where people stood in line despite the rain. Signature collectors ran out of ledgers and had to request more.

In Santa Cruz over 105,000 signatures have been collected over the past week, and hundreds more are signing ledgers in Potosí, Sucre, Tarija, Beni, Pando, and Cochabamba where a similar protest and march are scheduled for tomorrow.

After the protest in Santa Cruz, there were speeches by several authorities on the steps in front of the cathedral, across the central plaza from the state government building where media members on hunger strike have set up large tents and easels featuring newspaper articles and photographs of journalists being beaten on the streets by government supporters.

Hundreds lined up to sign the referendum ledgers and dozens more surrounded the tents where they thanked the journalists who are on strike, giving them hugs, water, magazines, and other gifts in show of their support.



Thursday, 14 October 2010 UPDATE: Today is "Día del Abogado" (Attorney's Day) in Bolivia. Lawyers celebrated with meetings in which they declared one minute of silence (ie, one minute of mourning), in support of the media protests, stating they believe that "Democracy is dead in Bolivia".

Three of the journalists on hunger strike have been taken from the strike to hospitals for health reasons. Other journalists, and even one university journalism student, showed up to take their places in the hunger strike.

Last night dozens of taxi drivers drove around the central plaza in Santa Cruz honking their horns in support of the striking journalists. One, acting as their spokesperson, pledged their support stating "when there are accidents or taxi drivers are carjacked, journalists are the first on the scene and they support us, so we want to show our support for them."

Thousands of people throughout the country continue to sign the ledgers they hope will be used to force a referendum on this law. Most interesting to see is the number of indigenous people who are signing against the law. In La Paz over 15,000 signatures have been collected. In Santa Cruz the number has increased to over 110,000 and throughout the country, distant communities are asking for ledgers to be sent to the rural areas so citizens can sign them.

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