No laughing matter — being a cartoonist in Latin America

Ecuadorean cartoonist Xavier ‘Bonil’ Bonilla at one of his many appearances before regulators at the Superintendency of Communications. Bonilla’s political cartoons often draw the ire of President Rafael Correa.
Ecuadorean cartoonist Xavier ‘Bonil’ Bonilla at one of his many appearances before regulators at the Superintendency of Communications. Bonilla’s political cartoons often draw the ire of President Rafael Correa. El Universo

Xavier Bonilla may have the least funny job in comedy. A prolific and scathing cartoonist for El Universo, one of Ecuador’s major newspapers, he has been sued by the president, reprimanded by congress and flooded with hate mail for his work.

Even so, the threat he received last week was sobering. A note sent to the newspaper claimed to be from a 22-year-old Ecuadorean member of the Islamic State. The author took issue with Bonilla’s cartoon that depicted IS members destroying ancient statues for representing “infidel culture” and then complaining that their Internet connection was too slow to upload a video.

The letter said the next time Bonilla makes fun of the terrorist group, the author will call on his “friends in Syria” to “kill the wretch” and raid the newspaper “just like was done to the magazine Charlie Hebdo in France” — a reference to the terrorist attack in January that left 12 dead.

Almost a week after receiving the note, Bonilla, 50, who is better known by his pen name Bonil, said that the shock has subsided and that he finds the threat less than credible. Even so, he said it’s one more indication of the poisonous free-speech environment created by President Rafael Correa.

“It has to be understood within this climate of hostility and harassment that’s been created within the country,” Bonilla said. “It’s gotten to the point where even humor is being persecuted and oppressed by the president.”

Correa, who took office in 2007, made the media his punching bag from day one. During his weekly television broadcasts, he rakes critics and reporters over the coals and asks his followers to troll them on social media sites. He’s called Bonilla an “assassin with ink.”

In press freedom rankings, Ecuador fares far better than countries such as Colombia and Mexico where reporters are often killed for their work. But the lists don’t capture the pressure under which Ecuador’s journalists work.

In 2014, Correa sued Bonilla and El Universo for a cartoon criticizing a police raid on a reporter’s home. The government’s media regulator ordered the newspaper to pay $90,000 and for Bonilla to issue a public retraction. Earlier this year, the cartoonist was back in the courts, this time for skewering the poor oratory skills of Afro-Ecuadorean Congressman Agustín Delgado. Minority rights groups, with Correa’s backing, rallied to Delgado’s defense, claiming the cartoon was racist. The newspaper escaped a fine but was forced to publish a front-page apology for a full week.

Bonilla is simply a high-profile victim of a growing regional trend, said Héctor Schamis, a professor at Georgetown University and a columnist for Spain’s El Pais newspaper. Governments in places like Venezuela, Argentina and Ecuador are increasingly turning the screws on free speech, he said.

“First they lost their sense of democracy,” Schamis said, “then they lost their sense of humor.”

When Hermenegildo Sábat, a renowned cartoonist for Argentina’s Clarín newspaper, published a drawing in 2008 of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner with tape over her mouth (a not so subtle reference to her marathon speeches), she went on national television to denounce the image as being tantamount to a mafia threat.

In 2014, Venezuelan cartoonist Rayma Suprani was fired from her job at El Universal after she equated the iconic signature of late President Hugo Chávez with the eco-cardiogram of a dying healthcare system.

One of the basic errors in politics is to not laugh at your own expense, said Schamis, who will moderate a conference in Washington on Wednesday called “Cartoons in Times of Authoritarianism,” where Suprani and Bonilla will speak.

But Latin American leaders, particularly those trying to perpetuate themselves in power, seem to have forgotten that lesson. And those who use vast public radio and television networks to attack and denigrate their critics are a class apart, he said. “It’s a fascist form of exercising power and of using the media,” he added.

Correa sees himself as the victim of powerful, politicized media conglomerates, even as he’s hemmed them in with regulations and forced them to shed assets.

“The corrupt press” doesn’t understand “the difference between irony, sarcasm and vulgar defamation, lies and falsehoods,” he said during a recent televised address. “Ecuador and Latin America have been too tolerant with lies, particularly from the corrupt press, and it’s the principal reason that we’ve remained underdeveloped nations.”

No outlet seems too small to escape Correa’s attention. Earlier this year, he took issue with a website called Crudo Ecuador when it posted a photograph of him holding shopping bags in a mall in Europe.

The image of the president — who often dons traditional garb and touts his working-class roots — in a seemingly swank mall, went viral. The president responded by calling for an investigation of the website, and accused it of having links to the opposition and of using technology only available to national spy agencies.

The 30-year-old man behind Crudo Ecuador told the Miami Herald at the time that soon after the president’s speech he was inundated with death threats. Weeks later, a basket of flowers arrived at the house where he and his family had taken refuge. It was accompanied by a menacing note that named his wife and two kids by name.

He wrote his final post Feb. 19.

“After coming under this much pressure and harassment by the government for simply exercising my right to have an opinion … I’ve decided to withdraw from the fight that you started, Mr. President,” he wrote. “Feel victorious, you’ve won.”

Last month, Correa felt compelled to fire off Twitter insults to HBO’s talk-show host John Oliver after the English comedian skewered the president’s weekly television show.

In the media, Correa has found a good villain. Even as his attacks on the press are routinely condemned by free-speech groups and international organizations, Ecuadoreans seem willing to overlook it. He enjoys approval ratings of 60 percent, and is considered one of the most popular leaders in the hemisphere.

But as the country faces a cash-crunch because of falling oil prices, and Correa courts controversy by planning to sweep away presidential term limits before the 2017 election, he could come under pressure. And he’s likely to keep lashing out at his critics.

The media and civil society laws that Correa has put into place “amount to a project —unprecedented for Ecuador — of surveillance and regulation,” Catherine Conaghan, a Latin America academic and researcher, wrote in a blog for the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University. “They provide the government with a tempting arsenal of weapons to use, if necessary, in upcoming battles on other important legal matters, especially on the issue of presidential reelection.”

Bonilla said that beyond the pressure on the media, everyday citizens are seeing their freedoms curtailed (In 2011, a woman was arrested for making obscene gestures at the president’s motorcade. She was released that same day only after offering a public apology.).

While Correa often uses the power of the state to defend himself against critics, Bonilla said he’s under no illusion that authorities will try to find out who is behind the threats to him and Crudo Ecuador.

“The silence of the government says a lot,” Bonilla explained. “Its indifference to death threats against us is a threat unto itself, because it reinforces the idea that citizens who are not part of the official choir are defenseless.”

Wyss is based in Bogotá, Colombia. Follow him on Twitter: @jimwyss

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the day of the forum in Washington.

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