Ecuador’s president can't take a joke. And now he wants to punish cartoonists for trying to make other people laugh.
As the world rallies to defend freedom of expression in Paris following last week's deadly attack on Charlie Hebdo, the Ecuadoran government is dragging a critical cartoonist back to court for mocking a congressman from Rafael Correa’s ruling party.
“The media are supposed to be the watchdog of democracy; and while the terrorists in France tried to kill that dog, the government here is trying to pull out its teeth,” veteran cartoonist Xavier Bonilla told Fusion in a phone interview from Quito.
Bonilla, who goes by the penname “Bonil,” is being sued over a photo montage he made to poke fun at the dubious qualifications of some of Ecuador's lawmakers. Specifically, the cartoon in question mocks Agustin Delgado, a former soccer player with no college degree, who won a seat in congress in 2013 on the coattails of President Correa. The first box shows Delgado stuttering through a speech where he says people think he's a "poor guy" when they hear him talk, but — in the second box — he says that no one thinks he's poor once they see how much he earns as a congressman.
It's not exactly blasphemous stuff, but in a country where the government has come to think of itself as untouchable, Bonilla’s humor has angered officials to the point of litigation. Now, Bonilla's newspaper, El Universo, has to go back to court to face accusations of promoting “socio-economic discrimination.”
The charge, brought last August by Afro-Ecuadoran groups with government ties, will now be reviewed by Ecuador’s powerful communications regulator, Supercom.
If Supercom finds Bonilla guilty, his newspaper will have to issue apologies for seven consecutive days in the same section where it publishes its cartoons. That’s not all. If Bonilla commits any future acts of “discrimination,” his paper would have to fork over ten percent of its trimestral earnings in fines, or around $500,000 — an Ecuadoran humor tithe, as it were.
Bonilla's hearing was set for Jan. 16, but “inexplicably” moved to next month, two days after the Paris attacks.
It's not the first time El Universo — or Bonilla— have been slapped with government fines. Last year the newspaper had to pay $90,000 for another one of his cartoons that mocked state security forces for raiding the home of an opposition leader in December of 2013, and taking computers and other electronic equipment from his home.
Bonilla says Ecuador's government is attacking journalists by using the judicial system to stifle criticism and free speech.
“We are forced to draw with a lawyer looking over our shoulder,” Bonilla said.
Lawsuits against journalists have become quite common under Correa’s government, which famously threatened El Universo with an $80 million fine in 2011 over a column that allegedly libeled the president.
Correa asked courts to not implement the fine, which would’ve put the newspaper out of business.
But Reporters Without Borders [RSF] says a new communications law promoted by the government in 2013 has left the press more vulnerable than ever.
Ecuador's new media laws allow citizens and government officials to sue journalists for offenses as vague as not providing “relevant information” or “trying to attack a person’s prestige,” according to RSF.
The government defends the new laws as an effort to force journalists to be more responsible.
President Correa claims that privately owned newspapers are trying to destabilize his government while serving the interests of the country’s economic elites.
In a recent event hosted by the French embassy in Quito the socialist president expressed his solidarity with the victims of the Paris attacks, but moments later went on the offensive against his country’s own journalists.
“All liberty must have limits,” Correa told a reporter at the event hosted by the French embassy. The president said there are journalists with a political agenda who only publish things “that suit their interests.”
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.