Why Bolivia’s oldest journalist association went digital to defend press freedom
Nelson Martinez Espinoza reflects on his term leading Asociación de Periodistas de La Paz (APLP)
For over seven years, the European Journalism Centre has worked in Bolivia to support the independent press, accountability reporting and new innovative ways of communicating factual information.
As press freedom continues its relentless slide in the country, organisations that defend journalists rights are increasingly turning to innovative tactics to push back.
One of them is long-time EJC partner Asociación de Periodistas de La Paz (APLP), the most influential journalist association in Bolivia, led by its dynamic president, journalist and university professor, Nelson Martinez Espinoza.
He pitched his all-digital radio concept to the EJC in 2016: a platform for press freedom advocacy and a censorship-free way to reach younger audiences as well as APLP’s supporters directly online.
With his two-year tenure ending this week, I sat down with Nelson to look back on his eventful time leading Bolivia’s most important freedom of expression association, and the future of press freedom in his country.
You have had an incredibly active — indeed proactive — tenure as President of APLP. Which issues most tested your press freedom and advocacy credentials?
I had to take two key actions to protect journalists and a free press in Bolivia during my time as APLP president.
First was to defend Bolivian journalist Wilson Garcia Merida. He was accused of treason and forced into exile by the authorities in 2016 for documenting government corruption in his digital paper ‘El Sol de Pando’.
APLP together with Reporters Without Borders supported him in exile, his transit to a safe house in La Paz and finally his legal defence which invalidated the government’s arrest warrant. We now await a trial by a jury of his peers and are confident he will be declared ‘not guilty’ of treason.
The second action was a ‘State of Alert Press Emergency’ I was forced to make in August 2016, shortly after my term at APLP had started. Attacking independent media as a ‘Cartel of Liars’, government deputies moved to ‘updating’ the 1929 ‘Print Law’, which regulates and protects the press here. They wanted to turn civil penalties into criminal penalties.
I organised an emergency meeting with six of Bolivia’s nine journalists’ unions and drafted a Press Freedom Declaration, making clear that threats to the ‘Print Law’ will not be tolerated. The leaders of the six unions signed it and independent media across the country supported my action.
By that same evening, the deputies backed off and had ‘retired’ their project. Our action had stopped the defamation penalties (Articles 309, 310 and 311). We had protected the ‘Print Law’.
Even with all the intense advocacy work you led, you were still able to focus on a project to engage young Bolivian journalists, and bring to life public debates about press freedom over the airwaves. Can you tell me a little bit more about APLP’s all-digital radio?
After 88 years, this is the first time that APLP has its own means of communication. Other than a part-time radio channel in Ecuador, APLP Radio is a one-of-a-kind digital press freedom platform in South America.
APLP radio first and foremost acts as a platform, an innovative advocacy tool to support and defend freedom of expression and journalism safety in Bolivia. The radio produces information aimed at debating issues of national interest to Bolivia’s broad and diverse public, our country’s diaspora and also to network with other journalist associations across Latin America.
I am very proud of being ‘all-digital’ and making the most of new technologies to support dialogue between authorities, public and private entities and citizens, educating our audience with the aim of seeking solutions to the pressing social, economic and other issues facing our country.
APLP Presidents only serve for two years, and you had an incredibly hectic time. What opportunities do you think you missed — do you have any disappointments or regrets?
I wanted to achieve more to attract young journalists to become active and join APLP and other journalist communities and associations. It’s important to stay engaged and be part of a movement with so many threats to press freedom and to our livelihoods and even safety.
I feel that some younger journalists only look to APLP when they have their own issues and do not have time or interest to be part of a broader, long-term movement. I wanted to do more outreach.
With so many issues facing media simultaneously — disinformation, digitalisation, sustainability — what is the role of ‘traditional’ journalist associations? Should it change?
The good news is that information access has increased to all citizens in Bolivia. Not solely dependent on the owners of the media, all voices can be represented, and citizens can mostly access them.
With traditional media owners, they are still reliant on government through advertising and can’t be trusted in my view. Digital offers more free, open, and trusted voices.
In Bolivia’s specific press freedom context that means the role of journalist associations like APLP must support the role of professional, ethical journalists even more strongly. A credential system in Bolivia is even more important now in our context: It can enhance trust.
The future of press freedom has now become a global question, where is Bolivia’s place in this? Do you feel any optimism?
Unfortunately in Bolivia, significant amounts of advertising revenue will continue to come from the government. In fact, there is even an increase. This means only one thing: more journalistic self-censorship.
Further, APLP Radio has been hacked already twice, just like most independent media in the country. I expect more digital-psycho-cyber threats to continue. Self-censorship will increase.
More TV channels and newspapers are going down market — yellow journalism –less analysis, more sensationalism.
And one particular issue in Bolivia is media capture. The state has invested a lot in taking over the media financially through its advertising budgets and this will continue. The government is now contemplating how to control and regulate social networks and media.
Another growing issue is the means for consumption of news by youth. For example, WhatsApp is very popular among youth and has become a key platform for the spread of disinformation.
I do feel optimism with future developments around the increased platforms for media and information, freedom of expression and social media ‘communities’. These could be very positive developments in Bolivia.
Nothing will probably match the intensity of these last two years professionally — what do you plan to do next?
I am really looking forward to working at the University of San Andres in La Paz. I will teach young people about new technologies, television news and documentary production, skills which are needed in our schools.
I also look forward to producing documentaries for TV and writing editorials in one of our few remaining independent newspapers. And to deal with fewer lawyers!
The European Journalism Centre’s global media development projects help to ensure press freedom through training and advocacy. Interested in learning more? Click here!