Bolivia’s Proposed Law Against Racism Raises Censorship Questions

The Bolivian government has gotten itself into a strange debate about free speech. A proposed “law against racism and all forms of discrimination,” which President Evo Morales is strongly backing, would allow the government to shut down newspapers or broadcasters that publish racist material.

Reporters Without Borders says this gives the government broad powers to censor media. For his part, Morales says the law is just part of a push to end Bolivia's long history of discrimination and oppression.

Morales can speak with direct passion on this issue. He is Aymara, from the countryside and he is Bolivia's first indigenous president—the country has been dominated for centuries by its tiny European elite. It's perhaps not surprising, then, that he responded in highly personal terms when I asked him about press freedom under the new law (during a press briefing last week, on the fringes of the UN General Assembly.)

Morales grew up hearing stories from his mother about the racism of city people, who drove her off the sidewalks when she came into town and made her walk in the dirt “with the horse, with the animals.” He saw first-hand how impoverished campesinos were routinely turned out of banks and driven away from city centers. And his own story, for him, is symbolic of Bolivia's transformation: “we can all walk into the Plaza Murillo, now. Then we got into Parliament—and now we are in the Palace, we oppressed ones.”

What happens, though, when the oppressed one is suddenly in the position of the oppressor—when he sits in his palace and tries to keep his enemies at bay? In 2008 there was a period of violent unrest in Bolivia, and some media made ugly, race-baiting attacks on Morales. Last week, Morales brought up those media attacks as though it had happened yesterday: “They said, that Indian president, we have to kill him,” he repeated. Looking in my eyes, he said, “Would you tolerate that?” He added, “If this is the way they talk about the president, how will they treat the ordinary campesino?”

But the comparison doesn't work. The newspapers attacked Morales because he is the president. Racism is the accelerant for the attack, and gives bite and venom to the attack; but the real issue here is power, and the elites' fear of losing that power.

The solution to this battle cannot be to censor the press. We learn about each other through confrontation. Censorship freezes debate, so that instead of having a living, evolving conversation between two sides, we have a sterile argument, playing out in the echo chamber of our imaginations. Already, even before the passage of the law, Morales is showing signs of being stuck in his own feedback loop.

When asked about the law against racism, he was unable to talk about anything more recent than 2008. He referred repeatedly to the media attacks and to the alleged coup attempts; later, he accused the U.S. in general terms of trying to overthrow him. This may well be accurate, and certainly Morales has powerful, single-minded enemies among the Bolivian elite. Still there must be a way of engaging with them rather than shutting down their media.

Morales himself may have the best of intentions. Personally, I believe him to be sincerely and steadfastly working to better his country: “The idea isn't to end or shut down the media,” he says; the idea is to punish those who abuse their position as journalists and cross the line to make vile, racist attacks.

The question is, though, who will ultimately decide what it means to cross the line? How can we be sure that a future administration won't abuse the law and use it to censor the opposition? This law, if it passes, will give the government the power to shut down any media outlet that runs afoul of the government's wishes. That is not a power that any government should have. After all, what will happen if Morales' successor is less honest, less sincere, than Morales? Laws have to be stronger and more enduring than individuals, or else individuals will take advantage of the law.

*Kate Prengel is a guest blogger to She is a journalist based at the United Nations.

Tags: Bolivia

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