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Don’t Laugh at Me! Rafael Correa Prosecutes Humor

By: Alexandra Veloz - @Alex_Veloz_V - Feb 4, 2014, 10:32 am

EspañolOn December 28, Ecuadorian newspaper El Universo issued a cartoon by Xabier Bonilla. It portrayed the raid of the residence of the former oil trade unionist and legislative adviser, Fernando Villavicencio, and had the title: “Police and attorney general break into the residence of Fernando Villavicencio, and take documents amid corruption complaints.”

cartoon

Fernando Villavicencio is under investigation with the attorney general for charges of espionage and hacking e-mail accounts of high-level government officials. However, it wasn’t until the raid took place that Villavicencio heard of these allegations, which add to the libel prosecution he’s currently facing with President Correa.

The attorney general entered Villavicencio’s residence and confiscated his computers and electronic devices, in an attempt to find evidence for the investigation. By no coincidence, of course, Villavicencio and lawmaker Kléver Jiménez had previously revealed state corruption, especially in oil affairs, and had made known that more information was ready to be released.

President Rafael Correa considered the cartoon’s title a media statement. Therefore, he argued, it had to be real and provable for it to be released by the media. On January 4, during the broadcast of Enlace Ciudadano (Citizen Connection) — Correa’s television and radio show — the president stated that Bonilla should prove what he denounced in the cartoon, and that he would file a complaint against the cartoonist.

However, the president didn’t have to file any complaint. The superintendent for communication and information didn’t take long to pick up Correa’s gripe with his own investigation. On January 31, the government agency announced its verdict regarding this incident.

The agency ordered Bonilla to rectify the cartoon’s text and fined the newspaper El Universo with a penalty of 2 percent of its average income from the last three months. The newspaper was charged with taking a stance regarding Villavicencio’s innocence while he was still under investigation. According to the agency, the publication is responsible for all content it releases, including the cartoon, even though it was in the opinion section.

It’s not clear, however, what stance El Universo (nor Xavier Bonilla) took, since from the cartoon we cannot conclude whether or not Villavicencio is innocent.

During his broadcast on February 1, President Correa showed his support to the resolution and stated, “Clearly this individual [Bonilla] is lying; we are not fighting the cartoon, the humor, as the press has wanted to falsely portray; we are fighting the lie, the corruption.”

The cartoon is an expression of humor from a certain perspective, and not a source of new information. Its essential purpose is to satirize the reality, so the supposed correction order doesn’t make any sense. By demanding its modification, the government breaches the very foundation of cartoons, and it aims to transform them into simple pictures that tell the approved news.

Common sense tells us that if we are searching for news, we won’t resort directly to the humor section. Cartoons should not be controlled; much less should the government expect them to be “real and verifiable.” Otherwise, they would not be cartoons in the first place.

Precedents

Even though this is the first time this government agency has delivered a verdict based on the new Law of Communication, El Universo has previously been fined for its opinion articles. The most notorious case was Correa’s demand for compensation for damages against the newspaper and the columnist Emilio Palacios, for his article “No más mentiras” (No more lies).

El Universo has faced all these indictments because it hasn’t been willing to censor its opinion articles. This has generated some tension not only in this newspaper, but in the wider media, which has to increasingly restrain its content.

Ecuador has already been in the international spotlight several times for its restraints on freedom of expression during Rafael Correa’s tenure — especially for the approval of the Law of Communication in June of 2013. This legislation, also known as the “gag rule” for its restraints and controls, punishes the omission of information that the authorities consider contrary to public interest. It also forces the media to release only information that has been “verified, corroborated, accurate, and contextualized.”

The legal process against Bonilla will set another precedent to intimidate the media into restraining the news it issues, and therefore, to silence its opinions — especially those that don’t suit the government. Correa’s persistence towards prosecuting columnists and investigative journalists doesn’t surprise anyone anymore; perhaps what we never expected was that a cartoonist’s humor would also be censured.

Translated by Marcela Estrada.

Alexandra Veloz Alexandra Veloz

Alexandra Veloz is a lawyer in Quito, Ecuador. She has professional experience in corporate legal services. Follow her on twitter @Alex_Veloz_V.