Charges against Ecuadorian cartoonist and newspaper spur protests and indignation

Update (Feb. 13, 2015): In a ruling announced February 13, the Superintendent of Information and Communication (Supercom) has levied administrative sanctions against the newspaper El Universo and Xavier Bonilla 'Bonil' for socio-economic discrimination following the publications of a cartoon on Aug. 5, 2014.

According to Supercom, El Universo "affected the Afro-Ecuadorian social collective," infringing upon Article 62 of the Law of Communication (LOC), while Bonil was considered responsible for failing to observe Article 10, Number 1, Paragraph B of the law in question. Both are related to bans against the distribution of discriminatory content.

Supercom gave El Universo 72 hours, from the moment that the resolution notification was issued, to publish a "public apology to the Afro-Ecuadorian social collective affected by the content, which was discriminatory in socio-economic terms" in the same space that the cartoon had originally occupied. The newspaper is also required to publish the apology on its digital front page "for a period of no less than seven consecutive days."

Bonil received a written warning "preparing him for the obligation to correct and improve his practices for the plain and efficient exercise of the right to communication, and compels him to abstain from repeating these acts that are at odds with the Law of Communication."

The cartoonist's lawyer, Lenin Hurtado, who also belongs to the Afro-Ecuatorian community, criticized the decision made by Supercom, indicating that "you cannot fight against racial discrimination with a knee jerk decision like this. It is a small gesture that has been made with this resolution for the Afro community, making it so that an Afro public employee cannot be criticized. It is a tragic resolution and a terrible message for the national and international community," according to El Universo.

Original story: Accompanied by a group of people wearing shirts with the slogan "I'm Bonil," a replica of the French "Je suis Charlie," Xavier Bonilla 'Bonil', cartoonist of the newspaper El Universo in Ecuador, presented himself before the Superintendent of Information and Communication (Supercom) last Feb. 9, according to the Ecuadorian publication Plan V. 'Bonil' had been accused of violating the Law of Communication (LOC) following the publication of one of his cartoons.

'Bonil' and the newspaper El Universo were reported by 14 Afro-Ecuadorian organizations to have allegedly violated Article 62 of the LOC which prohibits, inter alia, the broadcasting of messages "which constitute advocacy of discrimination and incite experiments or violent acts based on some kind of discriminatory message."

According to the organizations, the cartoon published Aug. 5, 2014 fostered discrimination against the Afro-Ecuadorian people by satirizing the deputy Augustine 'Tín' Delgado, a representative of the ruling party, who is portrayed in the cartoon as being unable to read a speech at the National Assembly. This was alluded to in the vignette, together with the salary of the deputy.

At the time, Bonil apologized to the deputy and his family through his Twitter account, where he wrote, "if the expression of a public apology helps to erase the feeling of disrespect you have felt so personally, I will express that apology here, unambiguously, and with heartfelt conviction."

Bonil's defense attorney claims that the vignette limits itself by merely criticizing the legislator’s broken speech without reference to racial issues, making the complaint unfounded. The defense attorney working for the newspaper noted that they are not liable for the cartoon and that the author's opinion raises questions about the preparedness of public servants. The defense attorney also asked that the newspaper be excluded from the legal process, rejecting the hearing, and requesting their file.

The accusation has been seen by some organizations as a strategy used by the current government to restrict freedom of expression. In fact, the organization Freedom House issued a statement in which they said that "the ludicrous allegations against Bonil are the latest example of the Ecuadorian government’s ongoing effort to stifle the country’s independent media.”

The organization also noted that "[s]ince 2008, President Rafael Correa has used a variety of tactics to punish journalists and media outlets that publish opinions he disagrees with. Freedom House reiterates its call for the Ecuadorian government to respect the fundamental right to freedom of expression and end its politically motivated persecution of journalists like Bonil.”

The incident generated attention because it is the second time that the newspaper El Universo and Bonil have been ruled against by the Supercom in a similar situation. On Jan. 31, 2014, the entity sanctioned them through a process initiated by President Correa for the publication of a cartoon on Dec. 28, 2013.

On that occasion, Supercom fined El Universo for 2 percent of its average earnings for the last quarter for failing to prevent the publication of the cartoon, while Bonil was required to correct the vignette within 72 hours. This correction was published on Feb. 5, 2014.

Although this time the process was initiated by other organizations, some media outlets have reported the coincidence in the previous reference made ​​by the president about the incident through a public statement: "If a white person would have done it, nothing would have happened. Because an Afro did it, he is mocked on social media and this is immediately picked up by hateful journalists."

In the past, different organizations have expressed their concern for the relationship between the statements made ​​by President Correa and reactions from the community against those people who were mentioned. These actions have been represented especially by assaults and threats.

Weekly presidential broadcasts have also had international repercussions. In recent days, British comedian John Oliver referred to the issue in his program on the U.S. network HBO, making jokes about President Correa’s contempt for and sensitivity to the criticism he receives from the press or on social media.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.