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Critical Bolivian journalist set on fire by masked men

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Fernando Vidal was set on fire in the offices of his radio station, shown here. (AFP//Estaban Farfan)

Bogotá, October 31, 2012--The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on Bolivian authorities to investigate the motive and find the masterminds behind Monday's vicious attack on a Bolivian radio journalist who was set on fire in the station's offices in the southern city of Yacuiba. A studio technician was also injured in the attack.

Fernando Vidal, 70, owner of FM station Radio Popular, was hosting a show when four masked men burst into the station offices, according to news reports. The men shouted for Vidal and when he appeared, they poured gasoline on him and the equipment in the studio, news reports said. They set the fire with a cigarette lighter and then fled the scene, according to Esteban Farfán, Vidal's son-in-law and a Radio Popular journalist. Farfán told CPJ that station employees put out the fire with water.

Vidal was in stable condition in a local hospital with second-degree burns to his face, arms, legs, and stomach, Farfán said. Karen Arce, 25, the studio technician, was also hospitalized with burns on the face, legs, and feet, Farfán said.

Although the studio was seriously damaged, the station continues to broadcast, Farfán told CPJ.

The attack occurred during an interview program hosted by Vidal in which he and his guests were discussing the issue of contraband items crossing the border, news reports said. Yacuiba, a city of 100,000 people, sits just two miles from the border with Argentina, and contraband vehicles, foodstuffs, coca leaves, and cocaine constantly move back and forth across the frontier, according to Franz Chávez, coordinator of the monitoring unit of Bolivia´s National Press Association.

Farfán told CPJ that Vidal, a former politician, had often criticized local politicians on his show and had received a constant stream of threats over the telephone and in person from disgruntled public officials.

Local police arrested three suspects who were suspected of participating in the attack, according to news reports. No motive has been given. A government minister said in a press conference on Tuesday that the suspects had refused to speak to the police, but that authorities suspected there was a mastermind behind the attack and that they would continue to investigate, news reports said.

"This horrifying attack demands an intensive investigation that roots out not only the assailants but all those who had a hand in its planning," said Carlos Lauría, CPJ's senior program coordinator for the Americas, said from New York. "Bolivian authorities must not allow criminals to dictate what people can and cannot hear on the airwaves."

The attack was the second against the Yacuiba press in the past four years. In 2008, the Unitel TV station was attacked with explosives, an incident that authorities never resolved, according to news reports.

CPJ has documented threats and attacks against the Bolivian press in recent months. On October 13, Wilson García Mérida, the founder, editor, and owner of the biweekly Sol de Pando, and his general manager, Silvia Antelo, fled the department capital of Cobija for three days after they were harassed twice by investigators. Three radio stations were attacked with explosives and dynamite in a period of two weeks in June.

  • For more data and analysis on Bolivia, visit CPJ's Bolivia page here.

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