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Bolivia weighs regulating social media

Bolivian government officials are keeping a record of people who criticize the country's president, Evo Morales, online.

Story highlights

  • Bolivia's vice president says he tracks who insults President Evo Morales online
  • Lawmakers from Morales' party say they want to regulate social media
  • Bolivian opposition leaders say the government is authoritarian, aims to censor critics

A top Bolivian official has a stern warning for those who criticize President Evo Morales on social networks: He's watching what they say, and taking names.

"I am always going online, and I am writing down the first and last names of the people who insult him on Facebook and Twitter," Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera said in remarks widely reported in Bolivian media this week.

The vice president's comments have drawn sharp criticism from some free speech advocates. But lawmakers from Morales' Movement for Socialism party say they hope to push a proposed law regulating social media through the country's Congress.

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Constructive criticism is fine, said Franklin Garvizu, a congressman from the president's party. But officials have seen something more nefarious, he said.

"We are very worried because this is a case of systematically using communications mechanisms to plant hatred against the government, to harm the image of our president," Garvizu said.

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Bolivian opposition leaders have a different take. They say such comments show the government's authoritarian aim to censor social networks.

"Obviously on social networks one cannot expect everyone to be praised. The opposition also receives insults from public officials, criticisms with no meaning, attacks, and it would never occur to us to block social networks," said Samuel Doria Medina, who heads the opposition National Unity party. "That's why we've recommended to the vice president that he gets an account, that he interacts (with people). He will learn a lot more about young people, and surely not everyone will applaud him, but some will agree with him."

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Word that the government is monitoring information on digital news websites and social networks, and weighing regulating them, sparked sharp criticism among some on the streets of the capital city of La Paz.

"It goes against all the rights, human rights, above all," said Maica Guzman. "Where is freedom of expression?"

Others, like Cristina Perez, noted that the tone of discourse had gotten out of hand.

"No insult is good in any media," she said. "I think people should respect each other, but also these people should respect us."

Of Bolivia's roughly 10 million residents, there are more than 8.7 million cell phone users iwith the ability to access Facebook and Twitter or download YouTube videos, said Eduardo Rojas, president of Bolivia's Redes Foundation. There are about 1.7 million Facebook users nationwide, he said.

That means government officials, he said, should see social media as an opportunity government can join, rather than a threat.

Online, he said, "you can defend, promote and spread human rights, and on the other hand complaints."

"It is a device that can be used to deepen democracy," he said.

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