Called to testify before a government media oversight commission, editorial cartoonist Xavier Bonilla–known by his penname Bonil–showed up with a pair of four-foot-long mock pencils. But rather than having a small eraser on the tip, one of Bonil’s giant pencils was nearly all eraser.
It was a fitting prop. At the January hearing, Bonil was ordered, in essence, to erase one of his cartoons criticizing the government and to redraw it more to the commission’s liking. The strange decision prompted some critics to suggest that Ecuador be renamed “Borrador,” which means eraser in Spanish.
“How can you correct a cartoon?” Bonil said during in a recent interview with CPJ at his home just south of Quito. “It’s absurd.”
But these are absurd times for Ecuadoran journalists. They must do their jobs under a restrictive, year-old Communications Law that is filled with ambiguous language demanding that journalists provide accurate and balanced information or face civil or criminal penalties.
Under the law, a state watchdog, called the Superintendency of Information and Communications (SUPERCOM), monitors media content. It was the SUPERCOM that ordered Bonil to correct his cartoon. It also fined Bonil’s employer, the Guayaquil-based daily El Universo, about $95,000 for printing the drawing.
Meanwhile, President Rafael Correa has become Ecuador’s media-critic-in-chief. He has sued newspapers and investigative reporters that have denounced government corruption. He constantly insults journalists, including Bonil, on his Saturday TV broadcasts.
“He is sick,” Correa said of Bonil in a televised speech in February. “We are going to fight with all our might against these cowards and ink assassins.” Correa also invited his 1.6 million followers on Twitter to send insults to Bonil, and about 2,000 did so.
Bonil, 50, has been skewering Ecuadoran politicians since the 1980s, becoming along the way Ecuador’s best-known editorial cartoonist. He has worked for the newspapers El Comercio and Hoy, the newsmagazine Vistazo, and since 1995 has been drawing on average seven cartoons a week for El Universo.
Past governments either laughed at or ignored his comic barbs. One exception was Lucio Gutiérrez, who as president in the early 2000s expressed anger over Bonil’s habit of depicting him with a Pinocchio-length nose. But Gutierrez quickly stopped complaining, in part because it simply brought more attention to the issue of his honesty.
By contrast, Correa’s campaign against independent journalists has been relentless. Partly due to government hostility, the investigative magazine Vanguardia shut down last year, while the Quito newspaper Hoy stopped publishing its print edition on June 30.
Bonil remains extremely critical of the Correa government in his cartoons but admits that he’s changed some of his tactics to avoid trouble. For example, he says he probably doesn’t draw Correa as much as he used to. And although he praises El Universo for giving him full editorial freedom, Bonil says that the editors have sometimes suggested that he tone down his drawings.
“I am like a bird that is still free to fly but now I am always looking around for signs of trouble,” Bonil said. “The atmosphere is much heavier.”
Another way Bonil avoids trouble is to fictionalize real-life events, especially those involving lawsuits. That’s because Article 25 of the Communications Law–the same article invoked in January to sanction Bonil and El Universo–prohibits journalists from commenting on the innocence or guilt of defendants in ongoing legal cases or investigations.
When Bonil learned about an egregious case of graft at Ecuador’s state-run oil company, his subsequent cartoon depicted a patient talking with his psychologist. In the cartoon, the patient says he had a dream about government corruption. His doctor responds: “That’s not a dream. That’s a nightmare.”
“Before I would have addressed the issue directly,” Bonil said. “But with the Communications Law you have to be very careful. The problem now is that readers might not understand what I’m referring to.”
Bonil’s most famous cartoon was the one that drew the wrath of the SUPERCOM. The drawing depicted a December 26, 2013, raid in which agents confiscated the computers and documents of journalist Fernando Villavicencio, who had written investigative reports alleging government corruption and is an advisor to an opposition politician. The accompanying text said, “Police and officials raid Fernando Villavicencio’s home and take away documentation of denunciations of corruption.”
Correa insisted the raid was related to the journalist’s use of what Correa claimed were illegally obtained government emails. Villavicencio claimed the raid was aimed at confiscating information in his computers that implicated the government in corrupt acts–hence Bonil’s accompanying text.
But at a news conference, Carlos Ochoa, the head of SUPERCOM, justified the sanctions, saying that the cartoonist’s assertions were incorrect and that the cartoon “stigmatized” and “delegitimized” the actions of the government officials who carried out the raid.
“The media here have a very abusive attitude,” Virgilio Hernández, a congressman for Correa’s Alianza PAIS party, told CPJ last month. Even if the journalist is an editorial cartoonist, he added: “If you make an accusation, you have to back it up with facts.”
Bonil, giant pencils in hand, along with his lawyer tried to argue his case before the SUPERCOM. After a hearing that lasted only about 15 minutes, the SUPERCOM fined El Universo and gave Bonil 72 hours to come up with a new drawing.
But the cartoonist had the last laugh with a new cartoon dripping with sarcasm.
In it, Bonil depicted government agents arriving at Villavicencio’s door with bouquets of flowers. Villavicencio invites them in with a smile, saying: “What a pleasure! I was waiting for you.” He then insists that the agents take away his computers because he has full confidence in the Correa government.
Afterwards, Bonil said, “Correa was really angry.”