The government of Ecuador has sanctioned a well-known political cartoonist for his "offensive" depiction of an Afro-Ecuadorian politician, in a case that media rights advocates say is a clear sign of intimidation against opposition voices in Ecuador's media.
Once labeled an "ink assassin" by President Rafael Correa, 50-year-old artist Xavier Bonilla's employer was given 72 hours to publish an apology in Bonilla's regular column and on the front page of its website, where it must remain for seven days.
The penalty for Ecuadorian political cartoonist Bonilla — who publishes under the pen name Bonil at the daily newspaper El Universo — came a month after gunmen killed five cartoonists at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, sparking massive protests in defense of free speech and satire.
The sanctions were announced on Friday, in reaction to an illustration published in August in which Bonilla mocked Agustín Delgado, a stammering politician. Bonilla and the leading paper were charged with "socio-economic discrimination" by the country's media watchdog, Supercom, for the gibe at the Afro-Ecuadorian soccer player-turned-lawmaker.
The cartoon mocks Delgado, nicknamed Tín, as he fumbles his way through a speech.
"Because of my speech," the first panel stutters, "people say pobre [poor] Tín. But now with my assemblyman salary, no one calls me Pobretón" — meaning a man with no money.
The joke implies that people may pity Delgado for stammering during his speech, but nobody feels sorry for his hefty $6,000 monthly government salary. Bonilla's critics say that because Delgado comes from a poor background and has no college degree, he should not be mocked.
As a throwback to the #JeSuisCharlie tag that snowballed into a global movement, supporters tweeted under the hashtag #YoSoyBonil — Spanish for "I Am Bonil" — in solidarity.
This isn't the first time the satirist has fallen afoul of government censors. In 2014, after publishing a cartoon of a police raid on a journalist's home, Supercom ordered El Universo to publish a "correction" and pay a fine totaling 2 percent of the previous three months revenue — a reported $90,000.
The correction came shortly after the ruling, in the form of a humorous cartoon re-depicting the police raid under the title "rectification," this time with the journalist willingly welcoming the authorities into his home.
Bonilla's correction, image via El Universo
Press freedom advocates say Correa's administration is persecuting Bonilla and his newspaper, and muzzling freedom of expression through a controversial communication law that was passed in 2013.
According to the new regulations, authorities have the power to levy a fine of approximately $500,000 against the daily publication — which amounts to 10 percent ofEl Universo's quarterly earnings. Supercom warned that future breaches could warrant more severe consequences.
'In governments with assertive figures, humor becomes a form of social reprisal against those who exercise disproportionate power.'
In an interview, Bonilla — who has published his cartoons in the Guayaquil-based newspaper since 1995 — told VICE News that the complaint brought forward by 14 Afro-Ecuadorian groups was "absolutely baseless," and part of President Correa's "war on private media."
"In governments with assertive figures, humor becomes a form of social reprisal against those who exercise disproportionate power," Bonilla said. "It's allowed me to express my criticism, discontent, and process my indignation."
The Correa administration has, however, claimed that it is protecting the rights of groups harmed by the media, while finally democratizing an industry dominated by what it has compared to a cartel of hostile private news outlets.
Supercom has been invested with powers to monitor content and place regulations and sanctions on print, TV, or radio outlets if they breach new regulations. According to Quito-based press freedom group, Fundamedios, journalists are being "asphyxiated," editors are self-censoring, and media organizations have been forced to close their doors, citing falling advertising revenue as a result of restrictive communication laws.
The group reported that "aggressions" against journalists — ranging from threats and physical attacks to arbitrary lawsuits — rose to 254 cases in 2014, 46 percent more than the figure reported for the previous year.
Carlos Lauria, the senior Americas program coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), called the law an "instrument for the government to attack and go after those that criticize it," in an interview with VICE News. He called the communications law one of the "most restrictive" in the hemisphere.
In 2014, Ecuador fell 13 places in Reporters Without Borders' annual press freedom index, earning the rank of 108 out of 180 countries.
According to sociologist Cesar Montufar from the Simon Bolivar Andean University, the president in recent years has leaned on a partisan judiciary and politicized institutions in its pursuit of dissidents.
"In Ecuador there exists a serious assault on liberty of expression by the government," said Montufar. "The Bonil case isn't an isolated cartoon. This is an official policy of the state."
Eric Samson, the coordinator of the journalism program at the University of San Francisco de Quito, told VICE News that legislators drafted the law with deliberate ambiguity to leave room for official interpretation.
"The articles are written in an extremely vague way," said Samson, who works for Reporters Without Borders. "For example, information must be in the public interest. But who decides what's in the public's interest?"
"The public media are increasingly aligned with government," Samson said. "There's no control of [Correa's weekly] Saturday broadcasts or pro-government advertising, and the balance is increasingly negative."
Correa, a University of Illinois-trained economist who follows a political model similar to Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, regularly heaps scorn on journalists in his weekly address, Enlace Ciudadano, even ripping up critical newspapers on screen.
In January he lashed out at Twitter trolls, rallying audiences to respond to users that "defame" his government.
"Some media outlets have attempted to foment old-school bad practices, with their unique concept of 'liberty,'" a Monday morning tweet from Correa read. "More soon..."
The leader of the Colorado-sized country is no newcomer to press bashing.
In 2011, Correa won a $40 million libel suit against El Universo, its directors, and columnist Emilio Palacio, who was sentenced to three years in prison after accusing the president of ordering security forces to "fire at will" on a hospital during a police rebellion in 2010. The Ecuadorian president eventually pardoned the charges, although Palacio, the sanctioned journalist, remains exiled in the US, where he was granted political asylum in 2012.
Patricio Barriga, the president of Ecuador's Council on Regulation and Control of Communication and Information — which provides prosecutorial evidence to Supercom — vehemently denied that the law curtailed liberty of expression.
"At no other moment has the country been so healthy in guaranteeing the social rights of the people in communication and information," Barriga told VICE News. According to Barriga, the law amounts to "limits" that have been applied to defend the violated rights of affected groups, such as Agustin Delgado, and the "crude stigma" furthered by Bonilla in his characterization of lawmaker.
Barriga also slammed investigations by press advocacy groups like the CPJ, which he alleged to be "US-financed," calling their work "completely distorted, tendentious, and without argument."
But Edison Lanza, special rapporteur on freedom of expression for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, told VICE News that individual complaints against the government of Ecuador have increased in recent years.
Lanza warned of plans underway to categorize Ecuador's media as a public service. Under this model, so-called "audience ombudsmen" would hold permanent positions in newsrooms and at TV studios, in order to supervise produced content.
Critics have denounced the proposal as censorship, though Barriga insisted the ombudsmen would act as mediators between outlets and their consumers, not spies.
During his hearing last week, Bonilla gifted Supercom with a giant pair of cardboard glasses, for "turning a blind eye" to media outlets that are sympathetic to the government, yet themselves infringe on the communication law.
Bonil said he would not let the sanctions drain the ink from his pen.
"I have no words for president Correa," Bonil told VICE News. "But [I have] more cartoons that have yet to speak."
Follow Alex Pashley on Twitter @A_Pashley