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    Posted October 13, 2010 by
    Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia

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    Thousands March for Freedom of Expression in Bolivia


    Thousands marched in support of  Freedom of Expression on Wednesday in Santa  Cruz, Bolivia, in protest against articles 16 and 23 of the new Law  Against Racism and All Forms of Discrimination and in support of media  members on hunger strike.


    Twenty-eight journalists and other  members of the media have been on hunger strike in Santa Cruz for the  past nine days to protest the two controversial articles of the law  which establish sanctions, the withdrawal of operating licenses, and  even possible imprisonment for journalists and media owners who publish  or broadcast any racial or discriminatory statements, even if they are  made by third parties.


    The press, and a large part of the  Bolivian population, fear the government will use this law to silence  media establishments known to run stories in favor of the opposition.  For this reason the law has come to be known as "la ley mordaza" (the  muzzle law).


    Protesters gathered at the Plaza del Estudiante,  about 10 blocks from the city's central plaza, to which they then  marched while carrying flags and signs. Many wore handmade muzzles of  different types and t-shirts with messages such as "freedom of  expression", "the struggle continues", and "no to the muzzle law" to  express their rejection of the law and their support for the media and  freedom of speech in general.


    Members of the media are quick to  ensure they are not against the law itself, nor are they against  sanctioning racism or discrimination. They are asking only that the  government derogate the two polemic articles.


    To this end, the  public has shown up in droves to sign notarized ledgers which will be  used to request a national public referendum be held regarding this  issue, as the government did not discuss the law with the press prior to  drafting and passing it. In order for a referendum to be called, 20% of  the voting-aged public (or about 1 million signatures) would have to be  collected.


    The government has minimized the importance of media  and public protests calling them unnecessary and illogical and has  stated it will not hold a referendum even if the correct amount of  signatures are collected, as per the new constitution a new referendum  law must be discussed first. President García Linera indicated today  that "it could take weeks or months" for that to happen.


    Regardless,  citizens seem eager to sign the ledgers, even if only as a measure of  protest, in various cities. In La Paz 12,000 signatures were collected  on the first day where people stood in line despite the rain. Signature  collectors ran out of ledgers and had to request more.


    In Santa  Cruz over 105,000 signatures have been collected over the past week, and  hundreds more are signing ledgers in Potosí, Sucre, Tarija, Beni,  Pando, and Cochabamba where a similar protest and march are scheduled  for tomorrow.


    After the protest in Santa Cruz, there were  speeches by several authorities on the steps in front of the cathedral,  across the central plaza from the state  government building where media members on hunger strike have set up  large tents and easels featuring newspaper articles and photographs of  journalists being beaten on the streets by government supporters.


    Hundreds  lined up to sign the referendum ledgers and dozens more surrounded the  tents where they thanked the journalists who are on strike, giving them  hugs, water, magazines, and other gifts in show of their support.

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