The passage of the Law of Adjustment for Broadcasters ensured the renewal of broadcasting operating licenses, but not the redistribution of frequencies under the General Law of Telecommunications, Information Technology and Communication.
Erick Torrico Villanueva*/Bolivia/October 2016
With the passage of the Law of Adjustment for Broadcasters on 31 August 2016, the government of President Evo Morales put an end to the uncertainty that was being experienced by radio and television service providers, particularly those in the private-business sector. However, uncertainty was created for Bolivian press organizations.
The aforementioned Law No. 829, reassured owners of radio and TV stations by guaranteeing the renewal of their operating licenses and providing guarantees that the redistribution of frequencies according to the General Law of Telecommunications, Information Technology and Communication will not be put into effect until perhaps within the next 18 years.
Article 10, paragraph 1 of the General Law of Telecommunications, Information Technology and Communication (Law No. 164 of 8 August 2011) provides for the allocation of broadcasting frequencies for FM radio and analog TV based on the following criteria “when available:” up to 33% for the State; up to 33% for the private-business sector; up to 17% for social-community media; up to 17% for media organizations run by indigenous-native peoples and land workers, intercultural and Afro-Bolivian communities.
The law has left it up to future legislation to determine the distribution of frequencies for digital TV and medium and shortwave radio bands. However, the General Regulations approved for the aforementioned law on 24 October 2012 made no further reference to these areas and nor did it mention the proposed redistribution.
The Bolivian Broadcasting Association (ASBORA), an umbrella organization covering almost a third of the 1,200 radio stations identified by the Transport and Telecommunications Regulatory and Supervisory Authority (ATT) as working legally in the country’s 339 municipalities, has repeatedly expressed its concern regarding the proximity of the time period when such redistribution of frequencies should be implemented.
According to estimates of the Association, between 2016 and 2019 about 500 broadcasters were at risk of being unable to renew their licenses, due to the fact that the concessions they have received expire during said period, while the application of Law No. 164 should have reduced participation of the business sector in the radio and TV sectors from the present 80% to only 33%, which would leave approximately 2,500 people out of work at country level.
Consequently, and in the first quarter of the present year, ASBORA began negotiations with government authorities to prevent the termination of licenses at the end of the concession period, given that the ATT –per paragraph III of the “Sixth Final Provision” of Supreme Decree 1391 which approved the General Regulations of Law 164 in October 2012- had so interpreted the current regulations even though paragraph II of Article 30 of the law that was passed indicates that “broadcasting licenses will be valid for fifteen years and may be renewed only once for an equal period, provided that the holder has complied with the provisions of this Law, in its regulations and according to the respective license.”
Almost three months later, representatives from ASBORA held their first meeting with President Morales and began negotiations that concluded with the passage of Law No. 829. The readjustment introduces a new regime in which concession holders may only have one license in a service area and for a single broadcast band, and should thus transfer their licenses or authorizations in accordance with this new regulation within 12 months. In return, the government extended the validity of licenses in all cases until 30 November 2019 and provided for the automatic renewal of the same (i.e. without public bidding for noncommercial radio or television broadcasters) for a single period of 15 years from that date onwards, applicable to all broadcasters that have adhered to the new regime.
Private television stations that did not belong to a representative organization until shortly before Law 829 was enacted, will also benefit from the government’s decision and have since disclosed the existence of a National Association of Television Broadcasters (ANET).
Both ASBORA and ANET, via their top executives, Alfonso Arévalo and Jaime Iturri, respectively, publicly expressed their satisfaction with the Law of Adjustment and offered to work within the framework of the agreements reached with the Executive Branch.
Vice President Alvaro Garcia, however, stated that the commitment to radio and television license renewal is subject to compliance with the technical requirements and direction referred to in Law 164, as well as the agreement reached by the government with media owners for the latter to provide information of official interest.
Furthermore, Marianela Paco, the Minister of Communication, stated on 26 July that radio and television stations owners had proposed to the government that a law should be drafted for these sectors and announced the timely formation of a commission to consider said proposal. Although she also stated that the scope of the new law had still not been defined, she suggested that it could represent a much broader Law of Communication, and that the current Press Law would be reviewed.
These statements immediately generated concern among the leaders of organizations representing Bolivian journalists given that any reform or replacement of the law governing the press is viewed by them as highly risk prone due to the insistent questioning and criticisms of the press voiced by political authorities and the ruling party, the Movement Toward Socialism, which holds more than two thirds of the seats in the Legislative Assembly.
Such suspicion was also fueled by a statement by President Morales in the enactment ceremony for Law 829: in Bolivia “there is an exaggerated freedom of expression,” he stated at the time.
In this regard, the Law of Adjustment for Broadcasters ended the uncertainty that had engulfed this sector, and initiated a period of uncertainty for the non-governmental journalism sector, which fears an eventual legal intervention by the government that could result in restrictions on the freedoms of thought, expression and publication.
* Head of the Democratic Communications Project Manager of UNIR Bolivia and Academic Director of the Master’s Degree in Strategic Communication at Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar. He also founded and directed the National Media Observatory in Bolivia between 2005 and 2014.