New Bolivia law boosts government airwaves control

July 29, 2011 - 3:13 PM

LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) — A law newly passed by Bolivia's Congress strengthens the leftist government's influence over the airwaves by mandating that privately owned radio and TV stations only get 33 percent of licenses.

President Evo Morales has indicated he will sign the law, which was passed Thursday night. It gives the government 33 percent of broadcasting licenses and divides the rest equally among social and indigenous groups, which are generally pro-government.

Communications Minister Ivan Canelas said that the law will "deepen democracy by permitting indigenous and social groups access to the media."

But the Bolivian Broadcasters Association said it could shut down 400 broadcasters in 2017, when their licenses are up for renewal, thereby "restricting liberty of expression."

"The government is being favored. It would monopolize the electromagnetic spectrum" under the new law, said Antonio Vargas, director of the La Paz Journalists Association. The government already controls nearly one in 10 broadcasters in a nation where most people get their news from the radio.

A top official with the InterAmerican Press Association, Claudio Paolillo, called the law only the latest by Bolivia's Congress "that seeks to restrict freedom of expression and of information."

Morales' opponents have also complained that an anti-racism law enacted last year could be used to shut down news outlets critical of the government, though that has not happened.

The IAPA and other press freedom groups have decried what they deem attempts by other, allied leftist South American governments to curb free speech by more tightly regulating the industry.

A ballot question approved by Ecuador's voters in May will create a government oversight panel that can regulate news media content involving violence, explicit sex and discrimination.

It would also bar media company owners from financial interests in other industries.

In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez has used the courts and regulations against news media he has accused of plotting to undermine his government. One prominent opposition-aligned TV station was forced off the airwaves and cable.

Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, secured a criminal libel judgment earlier this month against a columnist and three executives of the opposition El Universo newspaper that would send them to prison for three years and force the payment of a total of $42 million in fines. They are appealing.

This poor, landlocked South American nation has some 1,100 radio and TV stations, up from 950 in 2005, when Morales was elected. He is the first indigenous president of a country whose majority descended from native peoples and which has long faced discrimination by a European-descended ruling class.

Morales' government recently sponsored the creation of a network of broadcasters designed to represent Bolivia's indigenous and poor farmers under the aegis of state's principal radio station, Patria Nueva.

Morales often complains that opposition-owned broadcasters, particularly in the eastern state of Santa Cruz, distorting the truth.

His opponents also object to a clause in the law that would oblige telecommunications companies to allow the government to eavesdrop on phone conversations, email and other electronic communications when the government deems national security to be at risk.

The law also requires broadcasters to transmit two presidential addresses annually, the first on the January anniversary of Morales' swearing in and the second on Aug. 6, Bolivia's independence day.

The parliament of another South American nation, Guyana, approved a broadcast industry bill of its own on Thursday night.

It would create a government-dominated panel empowered to suspend or revoke licenses for the airing programs it considers offensive.