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President Evo Morales responded to racist and discriminatory comments about himself and other ministers of indigenous origin, sometimes carried by radical opposition media, by enacting law 045 which provides for penalties for outlets that “publish or endorse racist or discriminatory ideas”. The legislation continues to cause controversy because of its ambiguous wording: a media organization’s reference to racist comments is different from incitement to racial hatred.

A lawsuit launched last month against the Fides news agency and two national newspapers are an unfortunate instance of inappropriate application of the law. The three organizations have been accused of racism for reporting a controversial speech by Morales in the east of the country, a region dominated by the opposition. The subject is highly sensitive in view of the country’s internal political divisions and the ongoing demands by journalists’ unions and organizations for the decriminalisation of libel and slander.

The new telecommunications law, approved in July last year, provides for the allocation of broadcasting frequencies by the rule of thirds, as has been done in other countries in the region – one-third for state-run media, one-third for commercial broadcasters and one-third for community outlets.

Here, as elsewhere, the new regulatory framework has aroused the hostility of a press that is mostly commercial and privately-owned and close to opposition groups. Two points in the law are the subject of debate: “cadenas”, or presidential messages, which all radio stations and over-the-air channels must broadcast at least twice a year, and some of the rules governing wiretapping. The legislation was enacted shortly after a new electoral law was passed in May last year severely restricting the space and airtime available to candidates in the press and on the airwaves.

Reporters, who are often harassed by activists on one side or the other of the political spectrum because of the organization they work for, must also face the violence of rising social strife. This was the case in June this year during the mining dispute and pay protests by police officers.

Since 24 May, Parliament has been working on a draft law to provide for life insurance for journalists covering high-risk situations who do not receive adequate support from their own editorial departments.

Updated September 2012

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