In the early morning of June 27, more than 2,000 indigenous Bolivians—men, women, and 200 children—entered the capital city of La Paz after a 62-day journey spanning 435 miles. The IX Indigenous March, as it was called, had been organized as a protest against a government-proposed highway through the marcher’s native homeland, the Isiboro-Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS). In La Paz, a mass civic mobilization awaited the marchers with food, clothing, medicine, and other signs of solidarity. One person was conspicuously absent from the reception—Bolivian president Evo Morales, who that very day decided he had a more pressing engagement outside of the city. The same thing had happened the previous year, when the VIII Indigenous March in Defense of the TIPNIS arrived in La Paz. Hours earlier, Morales had abandoned the presidential palace and flown to the city of Cochabamba to attend a school celebration. In La Paz, the indigenous marchers began a two-week vigil in hopes of lobbying the Bolivian president in person. But on July 10, they left the government center, without meeting Morales, their issues still unresolved.
From a communications perspective, there is much to say about this event, about the role of the media, and about Bolivian democracy during the years of the Morales administration. As is almost always the case in politics, there are no easy answers and the reality is more complicated than it may appear.
The so-called social networks closely followed the IX Indigenous March and were very active in the hours leading up to the marchers’ arrival in La Paz. On Twitter, messages read: “Mass mobilization of donations at #UMSA [Universidad Mayor de San Andrés] for the arrival of the #TIPNIS marchers”; “Students, neighborhood security brigades, labor unions, and organizations ready to welcome and support the #TIPNIS march”; “We’ve created the group Piecitos TIPNIS to support the children marchers. They need shoes and sweaters”; “400 feet, 200 mouths have traveled 435 miles and will be in La Paz for several days. Retweet and act.”
Other tweets took note of the dramatic situation experienced by the newly arrived marchers: “Some 25 children from the IX #TIPNIS March were rushed to the hospital with pneumonia”; “#Countermarch begins to assault supporters Amalia Pando #erbol calls on the people to defend the IX #TIPNIS March.”
A proliferation of tweets criticized the indifferent, even aggressive attitude of the government: “#Evo Morales celebrates the anniversary of the Confederation of Rural Workers of Bolivia, but is nowhere to be found when the #TIPNIS marchers arrive”; “#TIPNIS Don’t lose focus. The question is: Why is the government of #Evo risking its life to build a highway? What’s behind all this?”; “State media covers the pro-government march and criticizes members of the #IX March for the #TIPNIS.”
This eruption of commentary and debate within the space of 140 characters is something new in Bolivia, where the use of Twitter as a form of political expression dates back no further than two years. Former president Carlos Mesa was among the first public figures to join the ranks of Twitter and as of mid-July headed the list of Bolivian users, with 7,516 followers. Other political leaders have followed suit in recent months, communicating with followers through daily tweets. But what distinguishes the former Bolivian president from the rest is that he regularly writes analytical pieces for his news column, Columna Vertebral, which appears in the daily Página Siete.
In addition to Internet social platforms, mass-media outlets also offered wide coverage of the IX March, through news and analytical articles. In interviews and public statements, indigenous leaders highlighted their objectives, among them the nullification of Law 222, commonly referred to as the Law of Prior Consultation, which neither complies with the 2009 Bolivian Constitution nor respects the ruling of the Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal (TCP). Though public debate and media attention have centered on the illegality of a fraudulent process of prior consultation that served only to endorse a decision that had in effect already been made, the underlying issue has remained unchanged for more than two years: The Morales-government-authorized contracts with Brazilian companies for the construction of a highway between Villa Tunari and San Ignacio de Moxos that would divide the 4,600-square-mile TIPNIS territory in half. In so doing, however, it violated the Morales-backed 2009 constitution, which enshrined the environment-friendly developmental philosophy of el buen vivir and promised protection for madre tierra (mother earth) and respect for indigenous autonomy.
Indigenous groups from Eastern Bolivia are not opposed to progress or to the construction of a highway through Bolivia linking Brazil to the Pacific Ocean. However, they demand that the highway not cut through territory protected by law, something clearly prohibited by the Bolivian Constitution. The Morales administration has received a range of proposals from universities and expert groups showing that the construction of a highway bordering the TIPNIS—rather than cutting across it—would indeed be feasible. Nonetheless, the president and vice president’s refusal to examine other options has led many to believe that the government is siding with coca growers who view the TIPNIS as prime land for crop expansion.
On top of the controversial TIPNIS conflict, confrontations are growing between Morales and the mainstream media. In one case, Communications Minister Amanda Dávila accused CNN of censoring statements made by Morales in an interview during the Mercosur summit hosted in Argentina on June 29. The U.S. cable news channel responded that it had cut only questions asked by journalist Juan Manuel Rodríguez that had led Morales to abruptly end the interview. As proof, CNN aired the complete interview on various occasions, including the concluding segment showing the president growing increasingly irritated by questions posed by the CNN correspondent.
Morales and his administration have often confronted both Bolivian and foreign journalists, annoyed by their questions or by the content of their publications. Morales’s threats and press conference altercations have helped to encourage the notion that the media are harassed, censored, and repressed—none of which is true. The truth is that in Bolivia there is freedom of the press, and the state neither censors nor represses journalists in any way. However, it’s also true that the president’s belligerent attitude and that of high-ranking government officials have contributed to a climate of fear and self-censorship.
These tensions have been evident in the growing number of journalists and former officials who have distanced themselves from Morales after having initially supported him and his policies. The most emblematic case is that of former presidential spokesman Alex Contreras who after a much publicized break is now a member of the opposition. The celebrated journalist Amalia Pando, who enthusiastically supported the government during its early years, is now one of the most critical voices. Education Through Radio in Bolivia (ERBOL)—a news agency and radio broadcasting network of independent and Catholic-affiliated stations—has gradually taken a more critical position, and thus has become a target for Morales’s verbal attacks.
The Morales government has invested more
public resources in political propaganda (whether or not for electoral campaigns) and in strengthening media outlets than any previous administration. However, while of some of the outlets are considered public or community media, they operate in support of the government.
The state-owned Canal 7 television network, Bolivia TV (boliviatv.bo), is generally viewed as more a mouthpiece for the central government than a formal state channel. Its coverage is devoted to following the actions of the president and the governing party to the exclusion of reporting on the activities of governors, mayors, and other levels of the administration. During previous governments (with the exception of the military regimes), the state-operated channel maintained a certain degree of neutrality, but during the Morales presidency, the network has demonstrated militant support for Bolivia’s ruling party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS). Bolivia TV’s informative style is typical. Reporters usually appear on screen with the following introduction: “Now we are going to interview residents of this town so that they can express their satisfaction with the new public works carried out by the government of President Morales.” The cult of personality is ubiquitous in government-controlled media.
The same is the case for radio broadcasting since the government announced the creation of nearly 50 rural radio stations in 2006 as part of the state radio network Red Patria Nueva. Initially they were called “community” stations, but they were later labeled “native peoples’ stations” when the World Association of Community Broadcasters (AMARC) questioned their “community” credentials. For the most part, these stations produce very little or none of their own content. Instead, they rebroadcast programming from the state-run station, Radio Illimani, later rechristened Radio Patria Nueva by the Morales government.
The government hasn’t been left behind in the domain of print media either. In January 2009, the administration established Cambio, a state-financed newspaper with nationwide circulation. Both in its print and Web editions (at cambio.bo), the daily represents the interests and ideology of the central government, not of the autonomous regions or of other levels of the administration.
Communications specialists welcomed the creation of the Ministry of Communications in February 2011, because it offered hope that Bolivia, like Argentina, Venezuela, Uruguay, and Ecuador, would push forward a new telecommunications law consistent with the right to communication established in the 2009 Constitution. As in the other countries mentioned, proposals have been generated by Bolivian civil society that could serve as the basis for the new legislation.1 The communications minister, however, continued functioning as a presidential spokesperson. His successor, Amanda Dávila, has done much the same, despite having declared on the day of her appointment that the Telecommunications Law would be a priority for her administration.2
Throughout the decade of 2002–12, the landscape of media in Bolivia has constantly evolved. The country’s political and economic situation has contributed to the formation of new power blocs that intervene in national politics by way of the mainstream media and polarize public opinion. Morales’s own government has played this card by placing public media at the service of government politics and creating a personality cult around the president.
The political changes that began to unfold in 2005 with Morales’s presidential victory redefined the status of the mainstream media as gatekeepers of national public opinion. The rise to power of a leader with indigenous roots and a leftist discourse had the effect of “scaring” the commercial media. The rhetorical aggressiveness of the head of state quickly unsettled the mainstream media and even some journalists. Little by little, a tense relationship of coexistence began to take shape, though this balance has often been lost when the government voices a complaint. The administration’s arguments follow the logic that the president enjoys wide popular support but hears only the criticism of the minority opposition because the majority do not have media outlets to express their support. Nevertheless, polls indicate that Morales’s approval rate, which peaked at 65%, had dropped to 35% as of mid-2012.
The Bolivian government claims that the contentious attitude of some media has tempered the outpouring of public affection that accompanied Morales’s rise to power in 2006, after sweeping to victory at the polls like no other political movement since the 1950s. Private media, according to the government, manipulates information, distorting it in order to promote a climate of instability.
Media owners and many salaried journalists, on the other hand, maintain that they are merely exercising their right to criticism when they point out the administration’s inconsistencies. They are calling attention to the distance between discourse and reality on topics as important as the Constituent Assembly (which passed the new Constitution through a less-than-transparent process), the supposed nationalization of oil and gas (which with the passing of time came to mean only the renegotiation of energy contracts with the same oil companies), regional autonomy (several democratically elected governors have been persecuted), the Land Law, and so on. Mainstream media outlets suggest that Morales’s foundational and indigenous discourse does not match up with measures actually taken by the government.
Political—not necessarily ideological—polarization is the most outstanding characteristic of the mass media in Bolivia during this historic period. Contrary to accusations by the president and government officials, the principal opposition to the Morales administration isn’t coming from the right but from the left and center-left, and from civil society organizations that fight for the defense of human rights. The media subscribe to ideological positions that favor a philosophy of social change, but that reject the present political leadership.
Alfonso Gumucio Dagron is a Bolivian writer, journalist, and filmmaker. This article was translated by Dennis Stinchcomb.
1. Alfonso Gumucio-Dagron and Karina Herrera-Miller, Políticas y legislación para la radio local en América Latina (La Paz: Plural Editores, 2010).
2. Alfonso Gumucio-Dagron, “El misterio del Ministerio,” Nueva Crónica y Buen Gobierno (La Paz), no. 89 (August 2011).
For more on this topic see: Print Media Withers in Bolivia, While Radio Thrives.
Read the rest of NACLA's Fall 2012 issue: "#Radical Media: Communication Unbound."