Ecuador’s Communications Law aims for Cartoonist Bonil
by Soraya Constante (El País)
– Cartoonist must testify about a sketch of a break in at home of journalist Villavicencio
Seven months after its approval, Ecuador’s Communications Law – which Human Rights Watch considers “restricting press freedom” – has come into force. The first person to appear before the Superintendent of Information and Communication is cartoonist Xavier Bonilla (Bonil). An internal report from this agency alleges that Bonil distorted the truth and supported social unrest when on 28 December he published a cartoon in newspaper El Universo about a break in at the apartment of Fernando Villavicencio, a journalist and an advisor to an opposition lawmaker.
The cartoon appeared with the caption: “Police and prosecutors raid the home of Fernando Villavicencio and carry off documents alleging corruption.” The cartoon used Christmas as a hook to narrate what happened on the night of 26 and morning of 27 December, according to those affected and media reports.
In its first three months, the Information Superintendent has processed 52 cases, of which 20 have been resolved. The agency’s head, Carlos Ochoa did not provide more information about its operation, and what little is known about it is thanks to an interview he gave to Noticias Andes, a state news agency. “We don’t analyze cases publicly. We inform the parties in the dispute, and after a legal process we asses whether the law has been violated or not,” Ochoa told the news agency.
Bonil’s case has drawn attention because President Rafael Correa mentioned it in a broadcast on 4 January. On his show, La Canallada de la Semana [Weekly Roundup] he labeled Xavier Bonilla “sick, a hitman who uses ink,” and threatened to enforce the Communications Law. “We’ll file a complaint because now we have the Communications Law defending us. Otherwise, cartoonists who dressed themselves up as comedians will just spew their hate.”
The first working day after Correa made these announcements, the Superintendent for Information and Communication, Carlos Ochoa, asked newspaper El Universo for copies of the cartoon, and its author’s identity. As a result, the cartoonist and his lawyer went public about the process. Last Tuesday they replied to the Superintendent with a seven-page submission explaining different ways to look at caricature. “At base and in essence, it rests on exaggerating and poking fun at reality … it’s graphic, humorous opinion, so it’s as subject to its creator’s perspective as it is to that of the person looking at it,” states the text. The cartoonist also cited the press reports where he drew information for the sketch.
Bonil’s lawyer explained that the next step is an appearance where the parties present evidence and documents relevant to the case. The Superintendent has five days to schedule that meeting and then two days to issue a sanction, or archive the case. The new regulations for the Communications Law guide this process. President Rafael Correa issued those regulations at the beginning of this week, saying that they clarified parts of the Communications Law passed in June 2013.
The regulations – made up of 89 articles and 4 transitional provisions – go even further than the Communications Law in a desire to control content. César Ricaurte, director of the Andean Foundation for the Observation and Study of the Media (Fundamedios), worries about the control of internet-based media, something that wasn’t part of the actual law but now appears in the regulations. “Legally speaking, it’s schizophrenic: one part of the regulations guarantees rights, but another article restricts them. Article 2 doesn’t place controls on content created by citizens and legal entities on their blogs, social networks, and personal, business, or institutional web pages. But Article 3 says that all Internet media are subject to the law. So that means Internet-based content is subject to control.”
Ricaurte’s team has been working since 2008 on a register of restrictions to press freedom. Just in the last year they report 174 threats against journalists and communications media. “State officials carry out the majority of the threats, abusing the powers of their office, and the principal aggressor is President Rafael Correa. He’s seen as responsible for 13% of the threats,” Ricaurte indicated. “The president continues a stigmatizing and systematic discourse inveighing against journalists and the media. He’s described journalists in the harshest terms. On his Saturday program he identifies them by name and broadcasts what they look like. He does that after he receives criticism, or with op-eds he doesn’t like.”
Add to those threats rulings against the media, journalists, and editorial columnists. Fundamedios counts 42 judgments since 2008, with an increase in the number of cases imitating the judgment Rafael Correa won against newspaper El Universo. Correa asked for USD$40million in damages. Last year, a former judge claimed damages against a media outlet in the border province of Esmeraldas, claiming payment of USD$30million. “When the President won against El Universo, he asked citizens to seek judgments against the media and reporters. As a consequence, there’s been an increasing in using the justice system to quiet journalists,” Ricaurte relates.
Correa has railed against international media. In October he took to Twitter to accuse the magazine The Economist of lacking impartiality based on an article it published about Texaco-Chevron operations. This year he has done the same with the magazine Newsweek and newspaper the Miami Herald. The magazine raised questions about the state’s role in the massacre of isolated indigenous people; while the newspaper referred to break-ins at the house and office of opposition lawmaker, Cléver Jimenez, and his advisor, Fernando Villavicencio. This issue has become untouchable for the government.
Human Rights Watch’s report on the Americas published this week agrees with Fundamendios. On the Communications Law, the NGO confirms that it contains “vague provisions that allow arbitrary prosecutions and censorship.” The organization warned that the rules “opens the door to censorship by giving the government or judges the power to decide if information is truthful.”
Newspaper El País has also been the target of attacks by Ecuador’s government. Today, it attacked the newspaper for publishing an interview with Fernando Villavicencio who is now in Washington, weighing an asylum request. The Ecuadorean government’s principal argument is that large media groups work against progressive governments.
Journalist Soraya Constante reports for El País from Quito, Ecuador. This article first appeared in Spanish on 23 January 2014 with the title “El caricaturista Bonil, primer señalado por la Ley de Comunicación de Ecuador,” available at: http://internacional.elpais.com/internacional/2014/01/23/actualidad/1390452426_870042.html.
Translator Patrick Timmons is a human rights investigator and journalist. He edits the Mexican Journalism Translation Project (MxJTP), a pro bono translation service to provide distinctive, quality Spanish-language journalism to English-speaking readers.