Critics call Bolivia anti-racism bill media threat
September 15, 2010 - Reuters

LA PAZ, Sept 15 -- Bolivia's leftist president, Evo Morales, vowed yesterday to forge ahead with an anti-racism bill that skeptics say could be used to stifle media criticism of his government.

The bill, which has been approved by the lower house, would allow authorities to close down news outlets if they are deemed to publish racist content. Critics want that article changed, but Morales appears unwilling to compromise.

"Since the new Magna Carta took force ... there are no longer first-, second- or third-class citizens in Bolivia -- we're all equals," Morales, the Andean nation's first president of native Indian descent, told a news conference.

Morales won comfortable re-election last year, vowing to deepen his efforts to empower the poor country's indigenous majority. In his first term, he reformed the constitution and promoted people of indigenous descent to high-profile jobs.

In order to become law, the anti-discrimination bill must still be voted on by the Senate, where allies of Morales also hold a majority.

Rightist Senator German Antelo said the controversial article of the law that could punish news outlets was similar to measures pushed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a close Morales ally who has repeatedly moved against critical media.

"We want a law that's fair and just for everyone, that doesn't use the struggle against racism as a pretext to impose a law to gag the press," he told reporters.

Antelo hails from the eastern region of Santa Cruz, Bolivia's economic powerhouse and an opposition stronghold. It is also home to leading television channels.

The controversial article also drew criticism from Bolivia's National Press Association, which represents newspaper owners. It urged senators to scrap the controversial article, calling it "flagrant press censorship."

It is not the first time Morales has been at odds with the media since he took office in 2006.

He frequently criticizes local newspapers and broadcasters and has lambasted reporters for being the puppets of media bosses he says are aligned with the opposition.

Hoping to strike back, he launched a state-run daily newspaper called Cambio (Change) last year under the slogan "The truth will liberate us." -- Reuters