First of all, you should know that those mercenary guys probably were working for the opposition leaders in Santa Cruz. We know this now because a huge interview just appeared with a man who was in their sordid wee gang and has just turned grass. Otto at Inca Kola News has turfed up the story for the anglofono world and translated enough into English that you can get an idea, and if you read Spanish the rest is online too. One quibble: it’s appearing in the state-run newspaper Cambio, which was launched earlier this year as a deliberate offset to the anti-government tenor of most of the Bolivian press.
I don’t know what you think of state-owned media. Myself, I spend way more time reading the Bolivian newspapers than anyone should, and there’s a perceptible right-wing (or at least anti-left-wing) bias which isn’t helped by the government’s hostile relationship with the papers. There’s no doubt that some sectors of the press are nothing but bought-and-sold anti-MAS mouthpieces, but a lot of them aren’t, and they’re not all to blame for how much Evo seems to dislike them. The MAS’s attitude to media management seems to amount to: since it’s not possible to shut them down, shout them down. This fortnight’s news contains plenty of examples: journalists condemn lack of press freedom, the government talks about research (carried out by third parties) which shows that people trust the press less than they did five years ago and there are ongoing rumbles about the government’s court case against La Prensa. According to this report, Evo hasn’t met with the domestic press since January and only does press conferences with foreign journalists. How is that patriotic? This is the same leader who said in his inauguration in Tihuanaco, ‘I will commit errors, I ask you to correct me if I make mistakes’. He was specifically addressing fellow indigenous leaders, but it would have been more heartening to believe that he was addressing civil society as a whole. Which begs the question, is Evo still as radically accountable to civil society as he once claimed to be? And if he is, then why aren’t the press accepted as the legitimate nosy parkers of civil society, controlling by reporting critically and informing the public? Something’s broken here and I don’t know if it’s the government – which has been criticised by former allies recently for drifting from its platform of accountability and direct democracy – or the bad behaviour of the press.
And let’s face it, the press have hardly been upright keepers of the moral tone all this time. Reporting of the Pando massacre was particularly patchy back when it took place, because of links between those accused of carrying it out and newspaper owners. Even Reporters Sans Frontieres have criticised elements in the Bolivian media for inciting hatred, urging responsibility and restraint as well as reminding us that several attacks on media installations (TV channels, newspaper offices) were carried out by right-wing thugs in Santa Cruz. The newspapers tend to reflect the interests of their owners, like anywhere in the world, and since they are comparatively expensive to buy, it’s my experience that they’re not widely read among working class and rural people, so there’s no sense of writing for that audience or indeed reporting on rural life except in colourful culture and tourism supplements. There are major swathes of the population who are not considered newsworthy, and endless glossy magazines reproducing stock images and stories from the foreign press, featuring people who look nothing like most Bolivians.
Anyway this is all a roundabout way of saying that, when possible, I don’t get news from state sources like Abi, Radio Erbol and now Cambio. It’s not that I think they’re Pravda and Evo’s a big nasty censor, but neither do I think Evo has been particularly mature in his attitude towards freedom of the press. Like a lot of things in Bolivia, it’s difficult to stake out a position between ‘The MAS are authoritarian, press-smothering dictatorial Stalinists!!1’ and ‘The press is so far in thrall to the right wing that it’s not even bothering with’. When I tell people that I filter and compile stories from the Bolivian media, they often react with skepticism if they know the country well. A certain well-known filmmaker’s reaction was swift and brutal, ‘No hay periodismo verdadero en Bolivia’. I disagree with him, but I can see how he got that opinion: what with nasty incitement-to-racial-hatred stories and clear facts about newspaper ownership among opposition politicians, it’s easy to conclude that the papers have all got it in for the government. But then every government assumes that the press are gunning for them, unless carefully controlled, and my own government has been a black example to the whole world in how to prioritise the management of messages, rather than formulating policies of substance. At least their cynical management of the press suggests a bitter respect for it, though. In Bolivia, respect for journalists and journalism seems thin on the ground, and that’s a sad thing given how important the smooth functioning of a free press is to any healthy democracy and the professionalism and vocational zeal of many Bolivian journalists. But it’s also up to the press to earn that respect: perhaps they could start doing so by giving equal column space to attacks on indigenous people by right-wing youths as well as brutal examples of justicia comunitaria, or not reposting, verbatim, press releases by nakedly poltical lobbying groups like the Human Rights Foundation, now discredited like whoah. I don’t know. But the constant government-press feuding makes my life more vexing, because sometimes the only good material is on official sites, and like a proper hack (and activist), I never quite trust the official version of events (“Why is this lying bastard lying to me?” etc) like the above. Please do discuss in comments, I’ve got no solutions, just a vague and scratchy sense of discontent.
ETA: more on this from la Razón.