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JOURNALISM IN THE AMERICAS Blog

Former Nieman Fellows voice support for Bolivian journalist who quit his paper under government pressures



Bolivian journalist Raúl Peñaranda had to quit his newspaper to save it.

As one of the few remaining independent voices in Bolivia's current media landscape, the public corruption coverage of the investigative daily that Peñaranda founded three years ago, Página Siete, earned it several direct and indirect warnings and the wrath of the government.

By late 2012, the tensions between the newspaper and the administration of President Evo Morales had grown dramatically, and in August 2013 they reached a critical point: a regrettable mistake on the newspaper's part culminated in Peñaranda's departure, who left Página Siete in an effort to protect its reputation.

Last week, a group of 14 former Nieman Fellows from Latin America released a letter of support and joined several other colleagues who have expressed their solidarity for Peñaranda, the first Bolivian journalist to receive Harvard University's prestigious Nieman Fellowship. Among the signers were Ecuadorian journalist Mónica Almeida, Dallas Morning News Mexico bureau chief Alfredo Corchado, and Rosental Alves, founder of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.

"We, the undersigned, demonstrate our solidarity and demand that the Bolivian government seizes its pressures against Raúl Peñaranda and Página Siete," they said.

The government versus Página Siete

Página Siete ("Page Seven" in Spanish) was founded in 2010, and it's been a thorn on the government's side ever since.

In the last few years Morales' administration has sought out to consolidate a network of mediatic support by purchasing media outlets and pressuring critical publications. However, Página Siete has been difficult to coerce because it has never depended on official advertising. Peñaranda said there is an order from the Bolivian government not to sell publicity to Página Siete.

The tensions began to worsen in August last year when Página Siete published a story from news agency ANF that reported on comments made by Morales on food security in the city of Tiahuanacao, in western Bolivia, in which he refer to the residents on the eastern side of the country as "lazy."

Morales' administration later rejected the widely criticized comment and sued Página Siete, ANF and another media outlet for allegedly inciting racism.

After the incident, Morales and several government officials began using the delicate topic of Bolivia's legal dispute with Chile over an access to the Pacific Ocean to discredit Página Siete. It's a topic that unites people in Bolivia – the vast majority of them agree that the country should have an opening to the sea – and the government has tried to present Página Siete as an enemy of that goal.

For instance, in October 2012 vice president Álvaro García Linera pointed out that the sister-in-law of the newspaper's majority shareholder, Raúl Garáfulic, was a Chilean congresswoman to sustain accusations that Página Siete defended pro-Chilean interests.

García Linera has also attacked Peñaranda directly. That same month, the vice president showed a photograph of Peñaranda during a press conference, noted that his mother was born in Chile and accused him of being "unpatriotic" and "right-wing."

In an interview with the Knight Center, Peñaranda said that contrary to what the government has said, Página Siete actually agrees with the goals of the country's lawsuit against Chile.

PenarandaRaúl Peñaranda. Photo: raulpenaranda.net

“We have the right to be against the government but (the government's attacks are) actually completely unfair because our position on Chile is the same one 99 percent of Bolivians share, which is that Bolivia deserves to have access to the sea," he said. "They use this bad coincidence with the congresswoman and my mother to discredit us and create xenophobia."

New accusations from ministers and other officials emerged almost every day. In a speech in early August this year, Morales complained about certain “Chilean media outlets” that have affected the lawsuit against Chile. Some ministers have repeatedly accused the newspaper, calling it "pinochetist” and threatening to start a lawsuit against Página Siete for treason.

It was the worst moment for the newspaper to make a mistake.

In August this year, on a front-page story, Página Siete reported that the Catholic Church had excomulgated four Bolivian ministers that supported the decriminalization of abortion in the country. However, the Church denied the information. Página Siete released an audio file in which the head of Bolivia's Episcopal Conference, Bishop José Fuentes, said that the ministers had committed a sin and could no longer "partake of the body of Christ."

The Church later stated that the bishop's comments did not mean that the ministers had been automatically excommunicated.

“The error we made brought me a lot of sorrow, just at a moment in which we were engaged in such a hard fight with the government. Having made such a dumb mistake, having been me who weakened the newspaper for not having controlled things better," Peñaranda said. "But making sure there weren't any mistakes was my responsibility."

Página Siete apologized publicly; even so, after the mistake occurred, the government accused Página Siete of trying to antagonize President Morales with citizens and having wanted to sabotage his September trip to the Vatican. According to the Nieman Fellows, at one point the websites of Página Siete and Peñaranda were disabled with cyberattacks.

Peñaranda estimated that within the context of the government's constant public attacks, saving the reputation of the newspaper would take more drastic actions: Peñaranda took responsibility for the mistake and presented his resignation.

The newspaper now has a new director, Juan Carlos Salazar. Peñaranda said he has continued the newspaper's editorial line.

After Página Siete

Peñaranda's resignation helped mitigate the damage. The government hasn't made any new public references to Página Siete since his departure, he said.

“I have hopes that it will be difficult for the government to start a new campaign against the newspaper. I hope that in these circumstances we have given the newspaper at least one year, one year and a half of peace," he said.

It wasn't easy leaving the newspaper he founded, but now Peñaranda is pursuing a new direction. He's currently looking for funding to start an institute to train a new generation of journalists in Bolivia.

In the end Peñaranda laments that, if the political climate of the country had been different, an apology to readers for Página Siete's mistake would have been enough and it wouldn't have been necessary to leave the paper.

"If there hadn't been this hostility, maybe I wouldn't have resigned, maybe on the following day we would have apologized for the mistake and we would have offered a space for the Church to explain the situation on this topic," he said. "But I took responsibility to avoid having the government continue using this topic and in part it has worked."



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