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Bolivia's interim President Jeanine Áñez addresses the nation at the presidential palace in La Paz, Bolivia, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020.  © 2020 AP Photo/Juan Karita

(Washington, DC) – A decree the Bolivian government has issued to respond to the COVID-19 emergency includes an overly broad provision that authorities could use to prosecute those who criticize government policies, Human Rights Watch said today.  

“The Bolivian government appears to be taking advantage of the pandemic to give itself the power to punish anyone who publishes information the government deems ‘incorrect,’ in violation of free speech protections,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Vigorous debate is the best medicine against incorrect information, not prison terms.”

On March 25, 2020, Interim President Jeanine Áñez issued a decree enacting measures to extend the quarantine against COVID-19. It also includes a provision that “individuals who incite non-compliance with this decree or misinform or cause uncertainty to the population will be subject to criminal charges for crimes against public health.”

Top Bolivian government officials have expressly mentioned political opponents as possible targets of prosecution under the decree.

The decree does not specify what actions or statements should be classified as “misinformation” or actions that “cause uncertainty to the population.” This overbroad language, without clear legal definitions, can be subject to abuse to quell legitimate speech, Human Rights Watch said.

The decree provides that those who commit “crimes against public health” will be sentenced to 1 to 10 years in prison, as provided by Bolivia’s penal code. An article in the penal code details a list of crimes against public health, such as to “spread serious diseases,” “commit acts against hygiene regulations,” and a crime defined very broadly as “to carry out any act that affects people’s health in one way or another.” However, the article in the penal code does not list as a crime “misinforming” or “causing uncertainty to the population,” as stated in the decree, or any other crime related to public speech.

The government should immediately revoke this provision in the emergency decree, which seriously threatens freedom of expression in the country, Human Rights Watch said. Meanwhile, legislators, the Ombudperson’s Office, or regional authorities, who have standing before the Constitutional Court, should file a petition to review the provision’s constitutionality.

On March 18, Interior Minister Arturo Murillo announced that he had ordered the armed forces, police, and his staff to “cyberpatrol” the internet to identify those who “misinform” the public about coronavirus, stating that the government would prosecute them. He warned politicians, and mentioned specifically Luis Arce, “not to misinform.” Arce, a political rival of President Áñez, was leading the polls earlier this year for the presidential election originally scheduled for May. The election has been postponed to a date to be determined, between June 7 and September 6, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A few days later, Murillo insisted, without giving names or providing evidence, that some people were “misusing information” in connection with the outbreak to try to obtain “political benefit.” He called on the Attorney General’s Office to use all its powers against people who engaged in “misinformation.”

On March 23, Rafael Quispe, the director of the Indigenous Development Fund, a government agency, accused “the people” belonging to the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), Arce and former president Evo Morales’ party, of spreading “misinformation” about COVID-19.

On March 27, Public Works Minister Iván Arias warned that those who publish “false information” on social media would be incarcerated for 10 years and taken to hospitals to care for patients infected with COVID-19.

Human Rights Watch is not aware of any case in which the government has expressly invoked the March 25 decree to prosecute an individual for free speech.

“While the government has so far attributed ‘misinformation’ only to MAS members, without proof, the decree and the threatening statements by government officials can also have a chilling effect on others,” Vivanco said. “Journalists, health professionals, whistleblowers, and any social media user could understandably be fearful of being prosecuted if they criticize or reveal problems with the government response to COVID-19.”

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