In Bolivia, Morales Government Pushes Controversial “Phone Hacking” Law

A new bill would give Bolivian authorities permission to listen in on electronic communications in times of emergency. Critics call it a power play against President Evo Morales’ media opponents.

Bolivian President Evo Morales
Bolivian President Evo Morales


Bolivia is abuzz over the proposal of a new telecommunications law that critics claim will give the government of President Evo Morales carte blanche to listen into the phone conversations of media professionals in times of national emergencies.

According to the bill's controversial Article 111, during times of emergency, Bolivia's telecommunications operators, including the media, "are obligated to cooperate and put at the public authorities' disposition all networks and services, including broadcast, transmission and reception of communications and technology."

Bernardo Gutierrez, an opposition lawmaker, warned that the government could use the controversial article to tap into the phone conversations of individuals.

The Morales government has denied that there is such a clause in the new proposal, dubbed the Law of Telecommunications, Information Technology and Communications. He blames the criticism on "a false version" of the measure, which was circulated among government officials and even posted on Facebook.

On July 28, the Bolivian Senate, where President Morales's Movement Toward Socialism Party (MAS) holds a majority, passed the controversial bill, which the opposition and media owners claim is nothing more than an instrument to control broadcasters. Morales still has not signed the bill into law, though he is expected to shortly.

Under the law, 33% of the radio frequency spectrum would be reserved for government-owned broadcasters. Community and indigenous groups would be permitted licenses for another equal share, while the final one-third of the spectrum would be reserved for private broadcasters.

Because the indigenous and other community groups that have supported Morales since he came to office in 2006 don't have much money to spend in setting up a station, opponents say the MAS government will help fund their ventures to become official government mouthpieces.

The Bolivian Association of Broadcasters (Asbora) said it fears that of the 680 legal stations, about 400, which will have to have their licenses renewed in 2017, may be taken off the air. Asbora president Raúl Novillo called the law "a blow to freedom of expression," La Razón reports.

But the biggest controversy centers on whether the Morales government wants to use Article 111 to spy on politicians and the media, especially those who are critical to his administration, as the opposition charges. Public Works Minister Walter Delgadillo explained that the clause only states that the nation's media outlets would be obligated to connect to an emergency broadcast network if there was a threat or disaster.

In March, Morales charged that some media outlets were trying to destabilize his government. The InterAmerican Press Society has called the new law "an abuse of power," as reported by the Sucre daily El Correo del Sur.

-Martin Delfín

Photo - Alejandro Vasquez Nunez

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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