The Melgar Case Revisited
Jorge Melgar Quette, the Riberalta televisión commentator arrested in the middle of the night by hooded men last week, is still in jail and likely to remain there for the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile, a separate set of controversies has arisen around him related to racist and inflammatory statements made by him
At the time we first wrote about Melgar we were not aware, or at least no fully aware, of the nature of the statements he made, many of which we find shocking and objectionable, as do many others who might otherwise be inclined to rush to his defense.
Still, we think the case raises serious questions regarding freedom of speech and the rule of law in Bolivia, and deserves international attention.
What has Melgar said? To begin with, he has said that President Morales and various ministers of his government “should be shot” for their actions in arming and inciting to violence the campesinos involved in the so-called “Pando Massacre.”
While the government’s alleged actions in regard to the Pando Massacre are reprehensible as wekk as its repeated calls for indiscriminate armed attacks on, for example, the citizens of the city of Santa Cruz, give Melgar the opportunity to say he was just fighting fire with fire, we do not condone calls for assassination.
Beyond that, Melgar’s daily 15-minute broadcasts have often been laced with racist remarks against Indians, often mixed with profanity. A former editor of the editorial page at a leading Bolivian newspaper said, “I was appalled at the detention until I saw a recording of Mr. Melgar's hatemongering.”
What's a journalist, anyway?
Next there is the question of whether Melgar is, in fact, a journalist. One leading Bolivian journalist wrote to an international body that seeks to protect journalists saying of Melgar, “This person is NOT a journalist. He is a political activist who buys time on achannel in his region. The channel is the property of a leader of the opposition [to President Morales], He is not affiliated with any organization of journalists.”
These are true facts, but they in turn raise the question of when a journalist is a journalist. Does he or she need to be a member of an association of journalists? On this point, there is disagreement. In Bolivia, affiliation with professional and social organizations is seen as more important than it is in other countries such as the United States. . A columnist for a major La Paz newspaper and television commentator (who is more famous as an economist) says, “In Bolivia, erroneously, it is believed that a journalist is someone who has registered in the Association of Journalist, even though he may have 15 years of experience in journalism.”
Journalism is his crime
A man who is the former editor of two major newspapers in Bolivia says, “The majority of the news commentators in Bolivia are not credentialed journalists [“periodistas titulados”], but citizens exercising their right to free expression of opinions.”
Moreover, he adds, it is clear that Melgar was arrested for being a journalist. “Melgar has been detained for divulging a video of the Minister of the Presidency , Juan Ramon Quitana, urging the political lynching of Leopoldo Fernandez the Prefecto of Pando the day before the massacre, (saying that Fernandez would soon be sleeping with the worms) and also for revealing the testimony of the families of people who died saying the government was directly involved in the planning of the violent confrontation. The government contends that Melgar was arrested for being involved in the takeover of government buildings and the airport in Riberalta. However, he is so far the only ordinary citizen arrested and charged in connection with those acts. There is something special about Melgar, and its hard not to believe that it was his journalistic activities that caused him to be singled out.
Irregularities are troubling
His arrest, indeed, is disturbing on many levels other than freedom of expression. Even the former editorial page editor appalled by Melgar’s “hate-mongering” adds, “Nevertheless, I am worried at the downplaying of the fact that Mr. Melgar -- journalist or not -- was arrested/kidnapped in the small hours by hooded men. That goes expressly against the constitution and is a violation of Mr. Melgar's rights. It also confirms a dangerous trend of snapping opposition members from their regions and getting them hurriedly to La Paz, another serious legal irregularity.”
Yet another point needs to be made.Freedom of speech is only guaranteed when it also includes speech that shocks and disturbs. Otherwise the distinction between permissible and impermissible speech becomes too fine a line, too easily moved or stretched by governmental authorities.
Free speech often offends
We should not forget that in the United States the Constitutional guarantee of free speech has protected the pro-Nazi speeches of Father Charles Coughlin on the eve of World War II, and, more recently, the anti-Semitic hate-mongering of Gerald L. K. Smith.
Moreover, freedom of press has famously figured in cases that did not directly involve journalists. In the case of the New York Times vs. Sullivan, widely regarded as the most important decision ever made by the US Supreme Court in regard to freedom of the press, the text at issue was not a news story written by journalists. It was an advertisement paid for by civil rights activists.
Before we are inclined to dismiss Melgar as “an activist with a TV program,” let us reflect a little on where such thinking might lead us. Does Matt Drudge then become in a legal sense merely an “activist with a website?” Should we think of the late William F. Buckley as merely “an activist with a magazine?” And should such people be denied freedom of the press protection and due process of the law?
This is indeed a slippery slope.
And before we cast the intemperate Mr. Melgar into the outer darkness, we might think of another comment made by the economist-columnist: “It is painful what is happening in Bolivia. People every minute have more fear of writing something.”
This weblog was created to provide a fuller and more accurate picture of the current situation in Bolivia. Our principal effort to try to pull things together and place them in proper perspective is the penultimate post below, titled "Main Story."