Local and international press associations are condemning Ecuador’s action to fine the Guayaquil newspaper El Universo for running a political cartoon critical of the arrest of a government critic.
The cartoon became an issue after President Rafael Correa criticized it in his weekly television broadcast January 11. Within weeks, Ecuador’s newly created Superintendency of Information and Communication, or SUPERCOM, ordered El Universo to pay a fine equal to two percent of its revenue over the past three months. It also ordered the cartoonist, Xavier Bonilla–known by his penname Bonil–to modify the text that ran underneath the original in a new cartoon that must be printed in El Universo.
Correa called Bonil an “ink assassin” and called for SUPERCOM to investigate.
Bonil’s lawyer, Ramiro García, called the decision unconstitutional and said the cartoon was not a news report but a humoristic work of art, which was not covered by the communications law. The paper said in an editorial that it would fight the decision.
“It has been apparent for some time that Ecuador’s new communications law was designed to muzzle journalists critical of the administration. That this has been extended to cartoonists is ridiculous,” said Carlos Lauría, a freedom of press advocate. “Ecuadoran authorities should reverse this decision and allow the press to function freely without fear of official reprisal. Tolerance for dissent–whether written or drawn–is a touchstone of any democratic government.”
Bonil’s drawing depicted a December 26, 2013, raid in which agents searched the home and confiscated the computers and documents of journalist Fernando Villavicencio. Villavicencio has written investigative reports alleging government corruption, is an advisor to an opposition politician, and in 2011 filed a criminal complaint against Correa, accusing him of crimes against humanity for his actions during a police rebellion.
The cartoon, published two days after the raid, shows agents hauling away Villavicencio’s computers. The accompanying text said, “Police and officials raid Fernando Villavicencio’s home and take away documentation of denunciations of corruption.”
Correa has insisted the raid was related to the journalist’s use of what Correa claimed were illegally obtained government emails about his administration’s handling of a lawsuit against the U.S. oil company Chevron.
At a news conference, Carlos Ochoa, the head of SUPERCOM, said the cartoonist’s assertion that the confiscated documents were related to government corruption was opinion rather than fact. As a result, he said the cartoon “stigmatized” and “delegitimized” the actions of the government officials who carried out the raid. He called the cartoon a “deliberate act of disinformation” designed to fool the public.
According to SUPERCOM, El Universo violated Article 25 of Ecuador’s communications law that prohibits the media from taking an “institutional position” over the guilt or innocence of people involved in lawsuits or investigations. The controversial law, passed last year, is one of the most restrictive in South America.
Photo caption: El Universo cartoonist Xavier Bonilla; Photo credit: El Comercio.