Bolivia's new anti-discrimination law raises concerns

October 18, 2010

Mr. Evo Morales Ayma
President of the Plurinational State of Bolivia
Palacio de Gobierno
La Paz, Bolivia

Via facsimile: (591-2) 2202321

Dear President Morales:

We are deeply concerned that provisions in Bolivia's new anti-discrimination law threaten to stifle press freedom. We call upon you to see that this law is amended to ensure constitutional safeguards for free expression.

On October 8, the Bolivian Senate passed the Law Against Racism and All Other Forms of Discrimination, which aims to prevent and punish acts of racism and discrimination. The law left Bolivian journalists and local press groups worried that they could face legal sanction for the exercise of journalism.

Under Article 16 of the new law, "any media outlet that endorses or publishes racist or discriminatory ideas will be liable to economic sanctions and the suspension of its operating license." Article 23 stipulates that individual journalists and media outlet owners who spread such ideas shall face "a prison sentence of one to five years" and "will not be able to claim immunity or any other privilege."

Domestic and international press freedom organizations, including 24 members of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), wrote an October 7 letter to the president of the Legislative Assembly Alvaro García Linera, voicing their concerns that these provisions of the new law are detrimental to media freedom in Bolivia.

CPJ is concerned that the far-reaching and vague language of these provisions will be used to restrict and punish legitimate journalism. For example, it appears that the law could be invoked to bring civil or even criminal charges against a news organization or journalist who publishes or broadcasts a newsworthy interview in which a source makes statements that the authorities deem racist or discriminatory. Similarly, we are concerned that a media outlet dissemination of third-party opinions, as by a Web site that permits members of the public to post comments, could trigger a government inquiry and possible sanctions against the media outlet.

Moreover, the vague language of the specified articles may promote self-censorship among journalists and would allow the government to suppress speech that it deems to be racist or discriminatory without clearly defining what those terms mean. When faced with the risk of imprisonment or economic sanctions, Bolivian journalists have already said that they may choose to withhold information.

Bolivia's constitution guarantees freedom of expression and that includes the right to engage in speech that is offensive to certain groups or individuals. Either such expression is tolerated or the constitutional guarantees have no meaning.

Thank for your attention to these important matters. We look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

 
Joel Simon
Executive Director

October 18, 2010 12:29 PM ET |

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