Ecuadorian Cartoonist “Rectifies” His Joke Under Government Sanction

Amid International Outrage, Amended Version Merely Adds to the Humor

EspañolOn Wednesday, cartoonist Xavier Bonilla from the newspaper El Universo — also known as Bonil — released the amended version of his controversial cartoon. The newspaper initial, sanctioned version came out on December 28.

bonil281213Bonil’s original cartoon (pictured right) portrayed the raid of Fernando Villavicencio’s residence, a former oil unionist and legislative adviser. However, it incited direct attacks from Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa.

Villavicencio is under investigation with the attorney general over allegations that he spied on and hacked the e-mail accounts of high government officials. Villavicencio, alongside lawmaker Cléver Jiménez, has also denounced irregularities and state corruption, especially in oil affairs, and previously claimed to have more damning information ready to release.

Bonil captioned his sketch: “Police and attorney general break into the residence of Fernando Villavicencio, and take documents amid corruption complaints.” As was widely reported, the attorney general had entered Villavicencio’s residence and confiscated computers and electronic devices, in search of evidence for the investigation.

President Rafael Correa, however, considered the cartoon’s caption an express assertion, so it would have to be verifiable for the media to release it. The superintendent for communication and information, headed by Carlos Ochoa, then decided the verdict for this case: Bonil would have to revise the text portrayed in the cartoon.

In addition, Ochoa fined El Universo 2 percent of its average income from the last three months. He found the newspaper guilty of taking a stance regarding the innocence of Villavicencio, while he was still under investigation.

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El Universo released Bonil’s correction (above) in Wednesday’s newspaper, which portrays a much friendlier meeting at Villavicencio’s home. While the media outlet and the cartoonist will proceed to refute the government’s measures, they can only do so while compliant with the superintendent’s verdict.

Bonil’s lawyer, Ramiro García Falconí, has also criticized the superintendent’s failure to guarantee the defendant’s right to self-defense in a fair trial: Bonil had only 15 minutes to argue and present his case, and five minutes to object to any allegations.

Regarding this correction, Julio Clavijo, an Ecuadorian public policy specialist, says that Bonil “wasn’t frightened and knew how to satirize again the raid on Villavicencio. However, this leaves a terrible precedent as this case fosters self-censorship, the real purpose of the law of communication. With this [Bonil's] correction, the law has its first victims.”

This case is the first one since Ecuador’s new Law of Communication came into force — also known as the “gag rule” — which has generated widespread criticism because of its extensive reach. Lawyer Santiago Guarderas declared to El Comercio, a Quito-based newspaper, that the case could become a dangerous precedent of “previous censorship.” Even though Ecuador’s constitution and the Law of Communication guarantee freedom of expression and forbid any type of censorship, he says, Correa’s latest measures and the superintendent’s verdict will make the media think twice before releasing any controversial content.

“The current power structure aims to eliminate any kind of questioning regarding what the government considers to be the ‘absolute’ truth in front of its voters. This kind of approach seeks to instill fear,” Clavijo states. They want to “reduce the possibility of any social demonstrations, mitigate regime weakening in future elections, and keep power in their hands for the long run with their version of the facts.”

The verdict against Bonil caused a stir in the global media, and brought back international attention on Ecuador’s freedom of expression under Correa’s rule. Most notably, it raised the voice of cartoonists all over the world who expressed their solidarity with the Ecuadorian artist.

Translated by Marcela Estrada.

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