The evolution of the media system in Bolivia has been shaped by the nation’s particular geography, demography, culture, politics, and economy to produce a contradictory blend of innovation, richness, stagnation, and poverty. Land-locked in South America, Bolivia is perennially one of the most impoverished and politically unstable nations in Latin America, a legacy that has negatively impacted the development of the media system. Despite this legacy and general tendency, Bolivia is also home to some of the most innovative media practices in the world, especially in the area of community radio.
Bordered by Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Peru, Bolivia has just over 9 million inhabitants occupying a space of 1.1 million square kilometers, making it about the size of France and Spain combined. The nation gained independence from Spain in 1825 and experienced an armed revolution in 1952. The revolution ushered in major reforms such as the nationalization of the mining industry and the redistribution of lands to peasants, which precipitated class conflicts, political unrest, and a series of military coups. The nation has experienced more than 200 different governments since independence and suffered periods of hyperinflation in the mid-1980s which hit 12,000 percent in 1985 alone. Civilian rule returned in 1982, since which democratic elections have been held for its president (who serves a single five-year term) and two houses of congress, a Chamber of Senators, and a Chamber of Deputies. Current per capita income is US$2,900 per year, and 64 percent of the population lives in poverty. Bolivia has the largest ethnic Indian population (55 percent) in all of Latin America, and Spanish became the dominant language only in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Literacy has improved in the past 20 years, with a rate of 87 percent overall.
History And Regulation
Media regulation in Bolivia has been contradictory and inconsistent since independence. Freedom of the press is constitutionally protected, but journalists have suffered from intimidation and arbitrary detention, especially in periods of social and political unrest. Freedom House ranked Bolivia as a “partly free” country in 2005, while Reporters without Borders placed Bolivia seventy-sixth out of 167 countries surveyed in terms of press freedoms. By and large, the media system today is run privately with the state participating nominally in television and radio production and telephone service. Accurate and reliable statistics do not exist regarding basic data such as the number of daily newspapers, television and radio channels, circulation figures, and other indicators of media development. Nevertheless, Bolivia – along with Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua – is considered one of the least developed Latin American nations in terms of its media system according to the “media utilization index” developed by the United Nations’ Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL).
Print journalism in Bolivia has a complex tradition which combines partisan affiliation with critical questioning that often stimulates repression from the very party it supports. Print journalism was not established in Bolivia until shortly before independence in 1825. Republican victors at the time obtained “portable” presses, which had been exclusively in the hands of the military, and began printing ephemeral newspapers. The early press largely represented and promoted elite interests, arguing that civic rights were the domain of educated and cultured men who were literate in Spanish, which was spoken by only 20 percent of the population at the time. Despite its close relationship with powerful elites, the Bolivian press began advocating the causes of workers and peasants, while denouncing the ruling oligarchy and aristocracy.
The next major turning point for print media occurred during and after the 1952 revolution, when the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR) came to power. The party had set up newspapers to advocate its pro-worker policies, and younger journalists with leftist leanings suddenly supplanted news professionals who had traditionally embraced conservative values. They formed a national organization called the Bolivian Federation of Press Workers (FTPB), which took over by force, and later by election, the old-line Journalists Association of La Paz (APLP). The Federation became the focal point of repression in the years of dictatorship beginning in 1971, with one newspaper, Presencia, losing 14 of its 17 reporters to jail or exile.
Contemporary print journalism continues the partisan tradition with almost all newspapers known to reflect a particular political position, ideology, or party view. Concrete figures regarding the number of newspapers and circulation are difficult to acquire in Bolivia. Estimates on the numbers of daily newspapers published in 2006 ranged from 18 to 24, with eight of them based in the country’s functional capital of La Paz. According to 1996 figures from UNESCO, daily newspaper circulation in Bolivia totaled 55 per 1,000 residents, compared with 98 per 1,000 in neighboring and more economically prosperous Chile. The most influential newspapers are Presencia, La Razón, and El Diario de La Paz, which are all based in La Paz. The most dispassionate of the three is Presencia, founded in 1952 under the auspices of the Roman Catholic church. It is considered the best consistent source of professional, centrist journalism in the country. La Razón started publishing in 1990 and represents a liberal perspective; in recent years it has emerged as a highly influential newspaper on political matters. The oldest of these three newspapaers is El Diario de La Paz, which was founded in 1904 and reflected the conservative tendencies of its owners for most of the twentieth century. Calling itself the “Dean of the National Press,” it has become more open to leftist party and union perspectives since the 1990s, breaking away from its staunch conservative reputation.
The advent of television was late in Bolivia, with the first station going on the air in 1969. The development of television is best understood as occurring in two phases. The first phase began in 1969 and was characterized by tight state control. From 1969 to 1984, the state was the only authorized broadcaster, with one national channel and eight regional university channels. In early 1984 the Bolivian senate passed legislation allowing private television broadcasting. Coupled with the adoption of free market economic policies and the availability of inexpensive electronic equipment, the legal opening stimulated entrepreneurs, political activists, and local communities to enter the television arena. Within two years, Bolivia saw 45 new stations enter the broadcast field. The de facto private broadcast policy finally became legal in 1986 with the adoption of the General Rules on Television Service, which granted licenses for 10-year intervals. Along with this regulation, the state passed legislation imposing import restrictions on content, requiring national or local productions to constitute 25 percent of programming in 1986, increasing to 40 percent in 1990. Despite the proliferation of channels, between 75 and 80 percent of all content is imported fare (much of it pirated), with Bolivian productions consisting of news and sports programs.
Estimating the number of television stations in Bolivia is difficult. One author noted a swift proliferation of stations after the 1984 policy changes and counted 72 channels operating in the country by 1992. Most of the new signals operated locally, financed themselves through utility taxes or local contributions, and broadcasted signals of between 100 and 1,000 watts. The few large national and regional networks, however, are advertising-financed for the most part and owned by powerful business interests tied to mining, agricultural production, and import–export trade. These owners are also often tied to political parties, and several national personalities have emerged from television to run in elections. Currently, Bolivia has nine national and regional networks, the best known being ATB, Red Nacional, Bolivision, and Red Uno. UNESCO figures from 1997 placed television receiver distribution at 116 per 1,000 residents, compared with 215 per 1,000 in neighboring Chile.
Radio is the most developed sector of the communication system in Bolivia and the one area where this country has established an international reputation for innovation in media practice. Radio transmission in Bolivia began in 1929. Currently, the country hosts 171 AM, 73 FM, and 77 SW signals, more stations than neighboring Chile, despite having about half the population. The number of radio receivers in the country in 1997 was estimated at 5.2 million or 675 per 1,000 inhabitants, compared with 5.1 million and 354 per 1,000 in Chile, according to UNESCO figures. The structure of radio in Bolivia is largely divided into a large commercial sector, a vigorous religious segment (primarily the Catholic church), and a small state presence.
The area of international renown, however, regards community radio, affiliated either with unions of tin miners or with the Catholic church. The world’s first known community radio stations emerged in Bolivia in 1947 in the mining region of the altiplano or high plain. Newly formed and officially recognized tin miners’ unions established radio stations bankrolled by the dues of their members, who constituted the most important economic sector of the country during the 1940s. The stations programmed broadly, but were best known for establishing practices that were both highly participatory and strongly resistant to authoritarian regimes. For example, the stations developed the practice of the “open microphone,” where personnel would make daily visits to public markets and other gathering places to give voice to ordinary people. They also developed “people’s reporters” by training neighborhood and rural representatives to report news from their areas. The stations are legendary for mobilizing populations in times of military coups through the creation of “radio chains” (live retransmissions from one signal to another), and have suffered by having their stations bombed and closed down by the army. In their heyday in the late 1960s, the stations numbered around 30, but since the collapse of the price of tin, the exhaustion of the mines, and the mass firing of workers, all in the mid-1980s, the stations have virtually disappeared.
The other major force for community radio in Bolivia has been the Catholic church, which established its first station in 1955 and created an important network, Bolivian Radio Education (ERBOL), 12 years later. In its early years, ERBOL focused on literacy training, but has evolved to be more of a participatory network by working closely with more than 800 grassroots organizations and 2,500 community groups oriented toward social change. Community radio was given a boost in May 2004 when the President signed a law recognizing community stations with special licensing provisions. The new law is unprecedented in the Americas because it does not limit power, frequencies, or the airing of commercial announcements.
Finally, in the areas of telephony and Internet connectivity, Bolivia is largely underdeveloped and difficult to examine in terms of accurate figures. Current figures place the number of telephone landlines at 625,400. The introduction of cellular technology has skyrocketed, however, with 1.8 million sets in operation. Figures from CEPAL indicate that Bolivia and Guatemala are the countries with the fewest networked computers per capita in Latin America. Nevertheless, the government does not impose any sorts of block, censorship, or restriction on Internet activity.
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