- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 31, 2007

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — The leaders of Bolivia and Ecuador are moving with Cuban encouragement and in concert with their mentor, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, to restrict press freedom in their countries.

Bolivian President Evo Morales and Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa both announced steps to crack down on independent broadcasters within days of Mr. Chavez’s closure on Sunday of Venezuela’s main independent television station, RCTV.

Speaking before an international gathering of leftist intellectuals in Cochabamba last week, Mr. Morales proposed creating a tribunal to oversee the operations of privately owned press and broadcast outlets. Mr. Correa announced over the weekend that he would order a review of the broadcasting licenses of opposition news channels in his country.

Both leaders have drawn support and inspiration from Mr. Chavez’s increasingly authoritarian government since coming to power in the past 18 months, and both are drafting new constitutions that would greatly increase their own powers.

Mr. Correa has ousted 51 opposition deputies from his nation’s Congress and Mr. Morales this week ordered the arrests of four high court judges after they issued rulings that challenged his government.

“The main adversaries of my presidency, of my government, are certain communications media,” Mr. Morales said at the Fifth World Conference of Artists and Intellectuals in Defense of Humanity, a Venezuelan-backed group supporting “the process of change in Latin America.”

Appearing alongside Cuba’s minister of culture, Abel Prieto, Mr. Morales suggested “drawing on the experience of our friends in Venezuela and Cuba” to establish closer controls over the press.

Mr. Prieto suggested that some owners of the independent press should receive long prison sentences. “I wish that we could imprison the owner of a media outlet. With much pleasure we would give him a life sentence for lying, for confusing the people,” Mr. Prieto said.

The Cuban official said it was “imperative” to establish a tribunal that would “permit the evaluation and work of the media. Not only local and national but of all the great disinformation machinery in decisive media outlets with enormous world influence.”

Mr. Chavez announced Monday that he would investigate CNN as well as Venezuela’s last remaining opposition news channel, Globovision. He has remained defiant in the face of international condemnation and daily street protests in Caracas, telling his opponents to “take a tranquilizer.”

In Ecuador, meanwhile, Mr. Correa issued a statement saying that “radio and TV frequencies have been granted in ways that are frequently dark and it’s time to analyze the matter.”

He accused owners of major news outlets of using political influence to get their broadcasting licenses and using the press “to defend private interests that are often corrupt.” He also announced legal action against Ecuador’s opposition newspaper La Hora.

Mr. Correa has repeatedly attacked the ownership of news channels by current and former opposition legislators. A reporter for one such radio network was expelled last week from a press conference given by Economics Minister Ricardo Patino.

Indications that Mr. Morales is preparing to follow the example of his close Venezuelan ally have alarmed Bolivian opposition leaders and news editors, who are frightened by his moves against the judiciary.

“Morales identifies his enemies,” read a banner headline in the Santa Cruz newspaper El Mundo, which pictured a newsroom in the cross hairs of a telescopic rifle.

Mr. Morales tried to deflect mounting protests on Sunday by saying that he had no immediate plans to close down any TV station and that his criticism was aimed at owners of news organizations and not at individual journalists.

He organized a game of soccer with the presidential press pool on Tuesday to show his personal affinity with reporters.

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