The International Press Institute (IPI) has denounced in the strongest terms possible an attack yesterday on a northern Bolivian radio station in which masked individuals set the station’s director on fire during a live broadcast.
Fernando Vidal, 78, owner and editor of Radio Popular in Yacuiba, near the Argentine border, was in intensive care Tuesday after suffering severe burns on his head, chest, stomach and arms, Bolivian and international news media reported.
Station employees said that at approximately 10:30 on Monday morning four masked men stormed the station’s offices armed with two gasoline canisters. After pouring the substance onto the station equipment, the assailants threw gasoline onto Vidal and set him ablaze. Media accounts indicated that the incident, including Vidal’s subsequent cries for water, was heard live on radio until the fire cut the feed.
According to reports, Vidal was conducting an interview with two women on drug smuggling in the border region when the attack occurred. Esteban Farfán, a Radio Popular journalist and Vidal’s son-in-law, told media that Vidal had been critical of politicians in Gran Chaco province and Farfán indicated his belief that the shocking episode was politically motivated.
A station technician, Karen Delgado, was also wounded in the attack and was being treated in a local hospital. Witnesses said the station was completely burned out.
IPI Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie said: “I am absolutely horrified by the brazen attack on Bolivian journalist Fernando Vidal. It is unthinkable that journalists in Bolivia, or anywhere for that matter, should be the targets of such terrible violence. IPI wishes Mr. Vidal and Ms. Delgado a speedy recovery and extends our support to their families and to all employees of Radio Popular.”
Bethel McKenzie continued: “The Bolivian government must swiftly investigate this crime and bring to justice those responsible for this assault, which poses a serious threat to press freedom and transparency in Bolivia.”
Bolivian Communications Minister Amanda Dávila said during a press conference that the government has begun a “rigorous” search for the culprits. “I express my absolute condemnation of this cowardly action against people who were doing their job,” Dávila emphasised.
According to media reports, Dávila confirmed the government had not discounted the possibility that the attack was the result of a “vendetta on the part of armed groups engaged in contraband trade.”
Bolivia has recently witnessed an escalation in attacks against the press. In September, IPI joined a chorus of protests against public statements by Santa Cruz Mayor Percy Fernández, who said he wished to see journalists from El Deber newspaper “buried two meters underground.” IPI also urged President Evo Morales to drop plans to prosecute three Bolivian media outlets – El Diario, Página Siete, and the Catholic news agency ANF – for racial discrimination after allegedly twisting the words of a speech Morales gave in August.