The flag of Bolivia was adopted in 1851.

By Lesly De Leon


Bolivia, a relatively small country in central South America, is known for its minerals and strong indigenous culture. Citizens and media in Bolivia have partly restricted free speech and free press. The 2015 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders ranks Bolivia 94 out of 180 countries in terms of freedom of speech and press. Freedom House also classified Bolivia as a country with partly restricted free speech and free press rights in terms of its legal, political and economic environment.

Historical Background

Bolivia is a relatively small country with a democratic republic government. It’s strategically located in central South America, bordered by five countries: Chile, Peru, Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. It is known for its minerals and strong indigenous culture. Bolivia’s current constitution, its 17th, was adopted in 2009. The constitution established four branches of government; legislative, executive, judicial and electoral, which oversees elections nationwide.

Before the colonial era, Bolivia’s population consisted of many indigenous civilizations. In the sixteenth century, the Spaniards arrived in South America and easily overthrew the Inca Empire. Spanish conquistadors promised freedom to formerly independent states and tribes conquered by the Incas, gaining allies. However, after Spaniards established their rule and gained power, the future pattern of racial discrimination and class oppression against Indians became clear. The area known as Bolivia was titled Upper Peru.

During the colonial period, some Native American nobility were able to maintain their autonomy to a certain extent in the Andes much longer than anywhere else in the American continent. However, their autonomy and power was wiped out in the rebellion of Tupac Amaru in 1780.

After defeat in 1781 in the first rebellion, opposition to Spaniard rule did not die down. In 1809, creole elite from the city of La Paz declared independence from Spain, but the rebellion was quickly brought to an end. Still, opposition didn’t end and guerilla leaders emerged to gain power and support from all classes. However, independence was taken out of the control of Upper Peruvians as many wards for independence raged across the American continent. Bolivia was finally freed after 16 years of war with the campaign of Simón Bolivar and supporters. On Aug. 6, 1825 a declaration of independence was issued and the new republic was named after Bolivar.

Government through the early 20th century was controlled by the economic and social elite who followed laissez-fair capitalist policies. Living and economic conditions for Native Americans remained deplorable. They had little to no access to education, economic opportunities or political participation.

The impact of indigenous populations can be seen today in the multiple languages spoken in Bolivia. There are many official languages such as Spanish and 36 indigenous ones.

Evo Morales, socialist and anti-imperialist of Native American descendent with Movement for Socialism party, was elected as President in December 2005 with large voter support. Morales, the first Native American president, was reelected in 2008 and again in 2014 with large voter support. Morales is currently serving his last term as President, which concludes in 2020. According to a Feb. 24, 2016 New York Times article, Morales attempted to pass a referendum to Bolivia’s constitution which would allow him to serve a fourth term. However, voters did not pass the measure, with 51 percent of ballots against it and 49 percent in favor.

Free Speech

Historically, free speech in Boliva has been only somewhat restricted. Bolivia’s current constitution protects free speech with limitations. Under the Morales administration, government officials have expressed discontent when free speech is exercised to criticize the government.

According to an Oct. 24, 2012 CNN article, Bolivian government officials said they would place regulations on individuals criticizing Morales through social media. Vice President Alvaro García Linera said he personally wrote down the names of individuals who insulted the president. Interior Minister Carlos Romero said social media was being monitored and those who insulted the president would face possible criminal charges. However, Romero also said proposed regulations wouldn’t impact citizens’ right to freely express their opinions.

According to a Sept. 11, 2015 teleSUR article, García accused nongovernmental organizations in Bolivia of attempting to interfere in Bolivia’s domestic affairs on behalf of foreign companies and governments. García said he respected the right of foreign NGOs to criticize Bolivia’s policies but that these organizations don’t have the right to say they support Bolivia’s development while defending the interests of transnationals. García accused foreign governments of using NGOs to push policies with intentions of stunting Bolivia’s development under the pretext of protecting the government. In response, academics across the world expressed concerns about what they perceived to be threats which if implemented into legislation could restrict civil rights, especially free speech. Since García singled out four NGOs that were among the loudest critics of Bolivia’s environmental policies, some argued García opposed NGOs because of their criticisms. In response to critics, García said the government would not shut down any NGOs.

According to an article by the Council on Hemisphere Affairs, the Bolivian population widely uses social media to express opinions and criticism of the government. However, occurrences such as these could lead to self-censorship by the people.

Although, based on current events, it seems the Morales administration is more worried about criticism from media outlets than the general population.

Free Press

Freedom House ranks Bolivia as partly free of restrictions on free press rights, with a score of 47 out of 100 (100 being the worst for free press rights). Freedom House scores Bolivia’s legal environment 14 out of 30 and its economic environment 12 out of 30, with 30 being the worst ranking for free press rights. Freedom House scores Bolivia’s political environment 21 out of 40, with 40 being the worst.  The Morales administration has continued to use legal, political, and economic means to place pressure on independent outlets. Media is encouraged to avoid publishing any negative comments about the government, which has led to self-censorship. Bolivia’s 2009 Constitution protects freedom of press but with restrictions. Article 107 of the Constitutions imposes a duty on the media to communicate with “truth and responsibility” and allows for content-based restrictions by stipulating that media must contribute to the promotion of the nation’s ethical, moral, and civic values.

Bolivian government officials passed a law in October 2010, the Law against Racism and All Forms of Discrimination, to address degrading portrayal of indigenous in the media by granting authorities the power to fine or shut down media outlets and arrest journalists for publishing material deemed racist. According to an Oct. 22, 2010 Huffington Post article, Morales said the law was a step towards ensuring equality for everyone. Lawmakers and media outlets demanded the elimination of Article 16, which allows for the suspension of media outlets, and Article 23, which allows journalists to be charged for allegedly inciting racism. According to an Oct. 13, 2010 blog post on the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) International Journalism Blog, journalists and media outlets went on strike for 24 hours on Oct. 1 in protest of the law. A day before the law was passed and signed before Morales, 17 major newspapers across the country printed blank front pages with only the message “No democracy without freedom of expression.” In response to protests, Morales said there would be no amendments to the law but press organizations would be invited to discuss the implementation of the law. Representatives of Human Rights Watch expressed concerns that the law infringed on freedom of expression in a December 2014 letter to Morales. In the letter, representatives said under Morales’ January 2011 decree to implement the law, media outlets are responsible for racist or discriminatory comments by third parties if they broadcast it without advising the public to refrain from expressions of a racist nature. Representatives said the law’s vague provisions, while demonstrating Bolivia’s commitment to deterring racist comments, grant government officials broad powers to censor information published by the media.

Bolivia’s congress passed a Telecommunications Act in 2011, which established rules for the distribution of television and radio frequencies, the broadcasting of presidential messages and authorized wiretapping in certain extreme cases. Under the law, the government controls 33 percent of television and radio frequencies, the private sector controls another 33 percent, social and community groups control 17 percent and indigenous groups another 17 percent. Local journalist advocacy organizations continue to criticize the law, claiming it restricts freedom of expression by granting the government too much control. Additionally, Bolivia has no law guaranteeing access to public information. Representatives of the Asociación Nacional de la Prensa (National Press Association) have criticized the government for hampering journalists’ access to information.

According to a Sept. 19 2014 International Press Institute article, journalist Ricardo Aguilar and Claudia Benavente, editor at La Razón, were charged with espionage, complicity and disclosure of state secrets after publishing an article detailing the ongoing dispute between Bolivia and Chile about Bolivia’s access to the Pacific Ocean. On May 7, Aguilar and Benavente were called to testify in court, where a judge ordered them to reveal their sources of information. Juan León Cornejo, president of the National Press Association in Bolivia, said no journalist had been forced to reveal their sources since the country’s Press Law was enacted in 1925. Aguilar and Benavente’s defense attorneys argued the case should be considered by the Press Tribunal, not a criminal court. The defendants appealed the court decision and on Aug. 5, a judge dismissed the charges and ruled the case should be moved to the Press Tribunal.

In March 2012, Rogelio Peláez, founder and editor of Larga Vista, received a 30-month jail sentence for allegedly defaming a lawyer, Waldo Molina. In an October 2010 article, Peláez accused Molina of improperly receiving nearly half a million dollars in government funds for representing a defendant charged with stealing millions of dollars from Bolivia’s social security fund. Two years after the sentence, in April 2014, Bolivia’s Supreme Court overturned the ruling.

As seen in these two cases, the judicial system has countered government actions against journalists by upholding the constitutional freedom of press. In recent years, attacks on journalists have decreased.

Journalists are on rare instances attacked violently but it does happen. Threats and attacks against news outlets and journalists increased in 2011 and 2012. According to an November 2012 Freedom House article, a broadcast journalist was reporting live on drug smuggling when masked men threw gasoline on him and lit him on fire. It was the fourth radio station brutally attacked in a five-month time period. In February 2012, two radio broadcast journalists, Verónica and Víctor Hugo Peñasco, were found dead near their home, strangled to death. Three attacks occurred in 2011. In April of 2011, a news director for Agencia de Noticias Fides was killed by an explosive. In September 2011, journalist Monica Oblitas received death threats after writing an article which exposed government corruption. That November, a Bolivian television channel and its partner radio station were vandalized and forced off the air.

Under the Morales administration, there is strong split between pro- and anti-government media outlets. Critics of the government’s actions sporadically receive threats by elected officials. For example, in 2009, the police chief of the central city of Cochabamba, Alberto Suárez, threatened Escarley Pacheco, a reporter for regional TV station ATB Cochabamba, after she asked him about his ex-wife’s claims that he was physically and psychologically abusive. After the interview, Suárez told Pacheco: “I’m going to be following you, watch out for yourself.” Pacheco said she received a call from the police intelligence department the following day, requesting the video of the interview that ATB Cochabamba had broadcast. Suárez denied threatening Pacheco and said he was only warning her he intended to take legal measures against her investigation into his private life. Bolivia’s interior minister Jorge Perez announced support for Suárez, while national and local journalists’ unions condemned his actions.

The 2014 Presidential election, in which Morales was reelected for the third time, demonstrated increasing government control over the press and greater partisanship in media. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal, which monitors elections, required any company or news outlet to register with the government and report methods and data before releasing any poll results. State-run television network, Bolivia TV, gave unequal coverage to Morales’ opponents. When Morales did not join the presidential debate, the network instead broadcasted a soccer game.

Critical Comparison

Free speech and free press is more restricted in Bolivia than in America, in part because of implemented laws and in part because of the political and legal environment.

The United States is ranked 49th out of 180 countries, according to the 2015 World Press Freedom Index. The web and press are classified in the United States as free, according to Freedom House.

When the American public criticizes the President or other government officials on social media or any public platform, they can be assured they will not be threatened with possible criminal charges. The New York Times v Sullivan case decided in 1964 established that speech on public issues should be uninhibited, including sharp criticisms of government officials. However, this is not the case in Bolivia, as proven when Vice President Garcia said he personally kept a list of those who criticized the President online.

Similar to the situation in Bolivia, people in the U.S. share opinions about public issues on social media. However, in Bolivia the public is more like to practice self-censorship due to fear of legal ramifications. The government, while not directly prohibiting free speech, has in some occasions created an atmosphere where free speech is hindered.

In the United States, legislation prohibiting racist speech would never be implemented as it was in Bolivia. Multiple cases have protected hate speech which is racist or homophobic, including Brandenburg v Ohio and Snyder v Phelps. Movements to punish hate speech have not been supported by U.S. laws or courts. In Bolivia such movements have been promoted and even established by government officials who implemented a law prohibiting and punishing racist speech. This in large part is due to the Morales administration and Morales’ personal commitment to supporting equality for indigenous people.

As established in New York Times v U.S., press have the right to publish confidential government information as long as there is no threat to national security. Press being required by law to reveal sources is more complicated and typically decided on a case to case basis. This seems to be similar in Bolivia, as shown in the case of Ricardo Aguilar and Claudia Benavente. Aguilar and Benavente were charged with espionage and disclosure of state secrets and ordered to reveal their source before a judge ruled the case should be moved to the Press Tribunal.

U.S. libel laws place the burden of prove on the plaintiff, as established in New York Times v Sullivan. The prosecutor, especially public officials, must prove falsity and fault on the part of the author or publisher. Libel laws in Bolivia make it easier for government officials to win libel cases against journalists. That is why Rogelio Peláez was sentenced to 30 months in jail for allegedly defaming a lawyer. Although Bolivia’s Supreme Court later overturned the ruling, a lower court in the United States probably would have ruled in favor of Peláez and the case would not have made it to the Supreme Court level.

News outlets in the United States attempt to be unpartisan and for the most part succeed in covering politics fairly. In contrast, Bolivian news organizations are largely split between pro- and anti-government. This partisanship has led to unequal coverage of different political parties, as was the case when the state-run network Bolivia TV didn’t broadcast the presidential debate after Morales didn’t participate. Such a thing would not occur in the United States because of the different political atmosphere, which advocates for civic engagement and government accountability. In Bolivia, however, the political and legal environment is not as fruitful for free expression. Citizens and media outlets are guaranteed free speech and free press by the Bolivian constitution, but might exercise self-censorship in fear of legal ramifications.

Government officials have expressed contempt of the media on multiple occasions, which occurs in the United States but not to the same extent. Due to its relatively small international power, violations of free speech and free press rights in Bolivia do not typically receive international attention.


In conclusion, free speech and free press in Bolivia is partly restricted by the government and the country’s political and legal environment. While citizens and media outlets enjoy free speech and free press under the Constitution, the country restricts freedoms more so than the U.S. government.


Works Cited

  1. (2015). 2015 World Press Freedom Index. Retrieved March 30, 2016, from!/
  2. (2015). Bolivia Country Report. Retrieved March 30, 2016, from

Casey, N. (2016, February 24). Bolivian President Concedes Defeat in Term-Limit Referendum. Retrieved March 30, 2016, from

Bolivia sancionará a quienes insulten a Evo Morales en las redes sociales. (2012, October 24). Retrieved March 30, 2016, from

Fuentes, F. (2015, September 11). Is Vice President Garcia Cracking Down on Dissent in Bolivia? Retrieved March 30, 2016, from

Hirst, J. D. (2010, November 22). Bolivia: Control Racism or Control Speech? Retrieved March 30, 2016, from

Kubiske, D. (2010, October 13). Bolivia limits free speech/Journalists object. Retrieved March 30, 2016, from

(2014, December 15). Bolivia: Letter to President Evo Morales on Human Rights Legislation. Retrieved March 30, 2016, from

(2014, September 19). Judge rules to move case against journalists in Bolivia to Press Tribunal – IFEX. Retrieved March 30, 2016, from

Bolivian journalist sentenced to prison for defamation. (2012, March 15). Retrieved March 30, 2016, from

Journalist Set on Fire While Broadcasting Live in Bolivia. (2012, November 2). Retrieved March 30, 2016, from

Two Bolivian Broadcast Journalists Killed. (2012, February 29). Retrieved March 30, 2016, from

Farthing, L. C., & Kohl, B. H. (n.d.). Evo’s Bolivia: Continuity and change.

Klein, H. S., & Klein, H. S. (2011). A concise history of Bolivia (2nd ed.). Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

(This essay was last updated on April 30, 2016)


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