Bolivia's Morales signs racism law as media fret
October 8, 2010 - Reuters

By Carlos A. Quiroga
LA PAZ, Oct 8 (Reuters) - Evo Morales, Bolivia's leftist president, signed an anti-racism law on Friday that his opponents say could be used to stifle media criticism of his government.

Senators passed the law after 13 hours of debate and did not make any changes to the original text approved by the lower house. The president's allies have control of both houses.

The law allows authorities to close down news outlets deemed to have published racist content, sparking protests by senators from the eastern region of Santa Cruz -- the nation's richest area and a stronghold for the opposition.

Journalists have protested against the law for weeks, with some resorting to hunger strikes.

Morales, Bolivia's first president of native Indian descent, said the measure ensured greater equality in the Andean nation.

"We've had more than 500 years of racism," Morales said as he signed the law, flanked by indigenous and union leaders. "At last we passed a law to combat racism and discrimination."

Morales won re-election last year, vowing to deepen his efforts to empower the indigenous majority in South America's poorest nation. In his first term, he reformed the constitution and promoted indigenous people to high-profile jobs.

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

Bolivia's National Press Association, which represents newspaper owners, branded the controversial clause as "flagrant press censorship."

Morales has been at odds with the media since he took office in 2006. He often criticizes newspapers and broadcasters and has lambasted reporters for being the puppets of media bosses he says are aligned with the opposition.

(Writing by Luis Andres Henao; Editing by John O'Callaghan)