Feb 1 2001

Our Man in Bolivia

AP correspondent resigns amid major conflicts

The Associated Press‘ long-time Bolivia correspondent, Peter McFarren, resigned late last year after his extensive involvement in Bolivian politics was revealed. What is still unclear, however, is why AP allowed someone with so many conflicts of interest to be a correspondent in the first place.

The Internet-based Narco News Bulletin (10/6/00) was the first to reveal that McFarren personally lobbied the Bolivian legislature in September 2000 on behalf of a corporate water project. Some of the profits from the Bolivian Hydro-Resources Corporation’s $78 million project would go to a foundation created and presided over by McFarren.

Narco News called McFarren, who had been the AP‘s Bolivian correspondent since 1983, “the gatekeeper of information from Bolivia to the English-speaking world,” and charged that the AP writer “is so deeply in the tank with an interlocking set of governmental and business interests in Bolivia, that his coverage…cannot possibly be considered fair or impartial.”

The project McFarren promoted would privatize and divert water from Bolivia to international mining interests in Chile. This water privatization is one of the biggest stories in Bolivia, and is a central issue in widespread protests there that have been escalating since last April.

After FAIR inquired on October 20 about the Narco News story, AP announced that McFarren would be resigning from the agency effective November 1. On October 26–after the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz wrote about the issue (10/24/00)–AP released a story on McFarren’s resignation, as FAIR had urged. However, the report glossed over key aspects of the case.

AP acknowledged that McFarren had publicly promoted a private water project that would financially benefit the reporter’s foundation. But, AP wrote, McFarren has “never written about the water project for AP.”

That’s more an indictment of McFarren and the wire service than a defense. Since last April, when the intense struggle over water rights became one of Bolivia’s biggest news stories, McFarren has filed several reports about water policy, including three such stories in September and October. To allow a journalist with a personal stake in water privatization to report on the water protests was a gross violation of journalistic standards.

The AP reported McFarren’s claim that a speech he gave on the water project was delivered not to the Bolivian legislature, but to “an organization of community leaders” who happened to be “in a Bolivian congressional building.” The AP did not, however, note McFarren’s admission to Narco News that he works “pro bono” as a “promoter of the water export law,” nor did it note that McFarren’s presentation explicitly called for passage of “a specific law.” These details are relevant to any assessment of whether or not McFarren was in fact lobbying the legislature, and should have been included in the AP‘s story.

In addition, the AP story said nothing about how McFarren’s supervisors could have been, as they claim, unaware of his activities. Narco News reported that McFarren is “a near mythical player in the highest levels of Bolivian society,” often covered in the local society pages “as he rubs elbows socially with…the foreign diplomatic corps, the commander of the Bolivian armed forces and other officials.”

AP failed to report on additional McFarren projects that may have also compromised AP‘s reporting. A simple search of the Nexis news database and the Web reveals that McFarren has for years been involved in projects dependent on numerous government agencies and corporations. A favorable 1997 profile in the publication Americas (11/21/97) described McFarren as “perched on the pinnacle of a cultural-publishing-media-philanthropic conglomerate, perhaps the only one of its kind in the world.” According to the profile, McFarren is also “a founder and board member of the Bolivian Export Foundation.”

Quipus, another foundation that McFarren created and presides over, boasts $6 million in support from the city government of La Paz, Bolivia’s capital, and also receives funds from the country’s national government. Other contributors acknowledged on the foundation’s website include the Netherlands, Spain, Canada, Germany, Mexico, the World Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. Information Agency, IBM-Bolivia and American Airlines.

A reporter whose projects are so dependent on the good will and largesse of so many powerful governments, agencies and corporations necessarily undermines his independence and impartiality.

All of this information was easily available to AP when it published its brief, inadequate report on McFarren on October 26. AP‘s Code of Ethics advises subscribing media outlets to “report matters regarding itself or its personnel with the same vigor and candor as it would other institutions or individuals.” One would hope APdoes not claim that its piece on McFarren meets that standard.