The International Press Institute (IPI) today urged regulators in Ecuador to drop proceedings that could leave a newspaper forced to issue seven consecutive days of apologies and facing possible future fines of nearly $500,000, all due to a single political cartoon satirising a lawmaker from President Rafael Correa’s party.
Ecuador’s Superintendence of Information and Communication (Supercom) is reviewing complaints that 17 Afro-Ecuadorian groups with reported government ties filed against cartoonist Xavier “Bonil” Bonilla over a cartoon published on Aug. 5 in newspaper El Universo.
A hearing before the regulator is reportedly scheduled to take place at 9 a.m. on Monday.
The cartoon mocked Assemblyman and Alianza PAIS party member Agustín Delgado’s difficulty reading his justification for a vote he cast during a congressional session. Despite Bonilla’s public apology to Delgado two days later, the cartoon led the groups to complain against Bonil for alleged “socio-economic discrimination” in violation of Ecuador’s controversial Law on Communication (LOC).
The law, which Correa signed in 2013, has been severely criticised for narrowly defining freedom of expression, over-regulating media content and giving excessive powers to media regulators. Under the law, citizens and government officials may bring proceedings against journalists for publishing material that attacks their “credibility” or “prestige”.
The law also compels journalists to publish “corrections” of any offending materials. If Supercom rules against the Quito-based newspaper, El Universo will be forced to issue apologies for seven consecutive days in its cartoon section. Further, if Bonilla commits another act of alleged “discrimination”, the paper could face fines of 10 percent of its trimestral earnings, or approximately $500,000 USD.
“What is left when humor is censored?” El Universo Editor Monica Almeida asked yesterday in an email. “Now Ecuador’s government [has] started attacking social networks, like Crudo Ecuador who recently got [its] Twitter account suspended. Next, will the government censor books too? As the Charlie Hebdo episodes indicate, humor is a cause that crosses ideological and physical borders.”
IPI Director of Advocacy and Communications Steven M. Ellis called on Supercom to reject the complaints.
“This case is another illustration of the problematic nature of Ecuador’s restrictive communications law,” he said. “Mr. Bonilla has already apologised. Regardless of whether the cartoon was in good taste, that doesn’t justify what appears to be harassment intended to control what can be discussed and limit Mr. Bonilla’s and El Universo’s right to free expression.”
The current case marks the second time Bonilla and El Universo have faced problems with the LOC. In February, El Universo was fined $90,000 and Bonilla instructed to issue a “correction” to a cartoon criticising a 2013 police raid on journalist and opposition member Fernando Villavicencio.
Prior to the LOC’s implementation in 2013, El Universo faced off with Correa in 2011, when he challenged an article by Emilio Palacio that accused the president of having given permission to troops to open fire on a hospital during a 2011 police revolt. El Universo was ordered to pay Correa $40 million USD and the owners of the paper – brothers Carlos, César and Nicolás Perez – were sentenced to three years in prison. Correa later pardoned El Universo and the Perez brothers.