Two weeks ago Bolivia's Congress, at the prompting of President Evo Morales, passed a contentious anti-racism bill. At the heart of the controversy are two articles which grant government the power to close media outlets and imprison journalists. Media groups fear that the law could be used as a political tool against dissent, which could lead to self-censorship. While Washington should reiterate its unequivocal support for the attempts of the Bolivian government to stamp out all forms of racism and discrimination in their country, the Obama administration should emphasize that this must be done in ways that respect fundamental tenets of liberal democracy such as free speech.
"I myself have been the object of discrimination, humiliation," Mr. Morales said in a public event in support of the law, "as such, this is a step in order that we all have the same rights, and all are equal. It is hard to approve these laws, but we have done it." Nevertheless, opposition lawmakers and Bolivian media outlets have taken issue with the law. They are demanding the elimination of Article 16 which allows for the suspension or closing of media houses, and article 23 which allows for criminal charges to be leveled against journalists accused of inciting racism. Journalists fear that the Morales government, with which they have had a rocky relationship from the beginning, will use the law for political purposes. The issue has sparked a serious outcry in the Andean nation. The media and political opposition have sponsored multitudinous marches. Following the passing of the law, the newspapers countrywide published their front pages in blank, and dozens of journalists underwent a brief hunger strike to demonstrate their discontent. In their most recent demonstration, journalists around the country have gathered over 250,000 signatures for a repeal of the two offending clauses.
The Bolivian media has reason to be concerned. In countries affiliated with the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA) -- on the self-declared path toward "21st Century Socialism" -- the relationship between the governments and the independent press has been rife with conflict. In 2007 Andres Izarra, the director of the ALBA television station TeleSUR and former Venezuelan Minister of Communication stated upon backing the closure of the most important independent Venezuelan television station RCTV, "What I believe is that to construct the objectives about which the President (Chavez) speaks, we have to build communicational hegemony." In January of 2010, President Morales, in a meeting with press, announced, "...we are going to control so that media doesn't lie; that is for your dignity, for your good image." While the former minister of the Presidency of Bolivia, Juan Quintana stated, "the relationship between the Ministry of the Presidency and the owners of some media outlets has been challenging because some media organizations have become the clowns of imperial will and have worked and facilitated its work of undermining this (revolutionary) process." Within this environment, it is clear why Bolivia's independent media is anxious.
Response from the international community has been timid. Monday, a delegation from the U.S.-based Inter-American Press Society arrived in La Paz to attempt a dialogue with the government, the church, press and civil society. For its part, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists sent a letter to President Morales, stating "the CPJ is particularly concerned about the flexible language utilized in articles 16 and 23, which could be used to restrict or punish journalism."
The response of Washington to this polemic should be firm but nuanced. In a country which, notwithstanding the majority Quechua and Aymara population, has so long been dominated by a tiny wealthy class, the issues of racism and discrimination are real. The fact that President Morales is the first Bolivian President of indigenous descent is a testament to that fact. Washington should support President Morales's efforts to create a more inclusive Bolivia free from racism and discrimination. However Washington should insist that this be done within the bounds of liberal democracy, which includes the free, unhindered activity of the fourth estate, and should insist that Bolivia be a country that supports "rule of law," never "rule by law."
Joel D. Hirst is an International Affairs Fellow in Residence at the Council on Foreign Relations. Mr. Hirst is studying Venezuela and the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA). You can follow him on www.twitter.com/joelhirst, www.joelhirst.com and www.facebook.com/joel-hirst
Follow Joel D. Hirst on Twitter: www.twitter.com/joelhirst