27 June 2012

Media come under attack amid strike by police officers

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The wave of labour unrest that has been rocking Bolivia for months took a disturbing turn when the police launched a mutiny to demand more pay and journalists in several cities became the targets of their anger, reports Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The La Paz-based National Press Association (Asociación Nacional de la Prensa, ANP) recorded several assaults on the press.

Helen San Román, a journalist for Radio Patria Nueva, was beaten on 26 June in La Paz, according to ANP. Irene Tórrez, of the Red PAT network, was physically assaulted while she was reporting on the police conflict in Oruro.

A crew working for Televisión Boliviana had to flee on 23 June when a large crowd of protesters in Santa Cruz accused them of "minimising police demands," RSF reports. In other cases, members of the press were attacked by police who didn't believe they were journalists. For example, Miguel Zambrana, a journalist working for the vice-president's press office, was badly beaten by uniformed police officers on 25 June in La Paz and accused of being an "infiltrator", says RSF. Similarly, 15 camera operators and journalists of the state TV channel in the cities of La Paz, Cobija, Trinidad and Santa Cruz de la Sierra were attacked after being mistaken for "spies", says ANP.

Reports by local TV and radio broadcasters suggest that individuals who are not linked to the media have in some cases infiltrated the press in order to video record some of the confrontations. While it is not clear to what end these recordings will be used, ANP expressed concern over this phenomenon and its possible negative repercussions for the local press.

Police officers, who earn on average between US$150 and $200 per month, have been demanding salaries on par with soldiers of the same rank, the BBC reports. Violence erupted on 21 June in La Paz, and spread to other major cities such as Santa Cruz, Cochabamba and Oruro the next day.

In an incident that may also have been linked to the police strike, a 26 June dynamite attack destroyed the antenna of the Oruro-based community radio station Radioemisoras Bolivia temporarily forcing it off the air, say ANP and RSF. Station manager Félix Condori said they had previously received threatening phone calls critical of their reporting.

This is the third local station to be the target of a dynamite attack in the last month, according to RSF, but other stations appeared to be related to mining disputes. In the midst of ongoing clashes over the management of a tin and zinc mine in the town of Colquiri, Radio Vanguardia and Radio Cumbre were forced to suspend broadcasts after being attacked with explosives on 14 June.

Seeking to put an end to the week-old mining conflict, on 26 June, the government announced it had finally reached a deal to satisfy both the state mining company Comibol and independent mining cooperatives, Reuters reported.

The Morales administration appears to be on the verge of resolving the police strike as well but continues to face successive bouts of unrest. Meanwhile, ANP has appealed for dialogue, the restoration of calm in the country and an end to attacks on free expression.

In one positive development, RSF welcomed an initiative being discussed by parliament aimed at creating an insurance scheme for journalists required to cover conflicts and social unrest, or high-risk events more generally. The bill was initiated by the Federation of Press Workers of La Paz after the killing of two sibling journalists on 25 February in the city of El Alto, reports the Knight Center.

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