Cartoonist tries to turn government sanction into laughing matter

Last week, Ecuador’s newly formed media watchdog ordered El Universo newspaper to print a “correction” of an editorial cartoon.

The drawing, which provoked tirades from President Rafael Correa, depicted the moment that government security raided the house of Fernando Villavicencio, a journalist and opposition adviser, and confiscated hard drives and laptops.

El Universo cartoonist Xavier “Bonil” Bonilla put a caption on the bottom of the drawing saying officials were carting away proof of administration corruption.

On Wednesday, the newspaper ran the “correction.” This time, Bonilla’s cartoon shows Villavicencio inviting authorities into his home, inviting them to take everything they want, and blaming them for being too courteous.

“Call your lawyer,” one of the policemen tells him in a frame, to which Villavicencio responds: “Don’t worry, I trust all of you.”

Correa has said the raid was sparked after Villavicencio was suspected of hacking into the presidential email account. During his weekly broadcasts, Correa has also unloaded against Bonilla, most recently calling him a “shameless, ignorant, hating coward disguised as a cartoonist.”

The Superintendent of Communication, the government watchdog, said Bonilla and the paper broke the law for taking “an institutional position on the innocence or guilt” of a person who is being investigated. But the watchdog also said that Bonilla should have put quotes around the caption on his original cartoon and indicated its source.

El Universo Director Carlos Perez said the sanction was so ambiguous that it has created confusion at the paper.

“Before, we were keeping an eye on [Bonilla’s] work to make sure it didn’t make the people ‘up there’ [the government] too uncomfortable,” Perez said. “But it’s difficult.”

He said the paper might have to quit writing editorials about ongoing cases.

The newspaper, which has faced multi-million-dollar defamation suits from Correa in the past, is also required to pay a fine for the cartoon of 2 percent of its quarterly revenues. Perez said the fine is equivalent to more than $93,000. The sanction has been paid, but the newspaper is appealing, Perez said.

Correa, whose socialist reforms and public works have made him one of Latin America’s most popular leaders, has long accused the media of playing politics shielded behind the banner of free speech.

Ecuador passed a sweeping communications law last year that advocates say makes the Andean nation among the most repressive media environments in the region.

“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,” Carlos Lauría, the senior program coordinator for the Americas for the Committee to Protect Journalists said in a statement.

“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.”

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