If having to explain a joke defeats its purpose, having to correct it is a disgrace. More so for a professional comedian like Bonil, the popular Ecuadorian cartoonist. Even more if the price is tens of thousands of dollars. When those in power and their laws don’t have a sense of humor, jokes can be expensive.
At 9AM on Monday, February 9, Xavier Bonilla, otherwise known as Bonil, appeared before the Ecuadorean Information and Communications Superintendence (Supercom) due to a cartoon he published last August in the newspaper El Universo. The drawing mocked Augustín Delgado– congressman in Correa’s political camp and ex-player of the national soccer team– due to an episode of stuttering as he gave a speech before the National Assembly and television cameras.
It is not the first time that Supercom has come after Bonil. A year ago, it fined the cartoonist and his newspaper 90,000 dollars and forced to rectify another sketch, which lampooned the search of an opposition member’s office that had accused the government of corruption. According to Supercom, the cartoon “is not strictly true” and “stigmatizes the actions” of those that appear in it (the police people and prosecutors which carried out the search). The Supercom’s censors said the obvious, as their statement is the definition of a cartoon. If the sketch had been strictly true— if it had not distorted, exaggerated, or inverted the facts— a simple photograph would have sufficed. If it did not stigmatize human conduct— if it did not question it with wit and sarcasm— nothing would justify it because nothing would differentiate it from the news.
Without these differences, critique and humor die out. Patrick Chappatte would make The New York Times go bankrupt. John Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and John Oliver would spend all their time at court. The legendary late night hosts David Letterman and Jay Leno would have shutdown CBS and NBC, not because of scandals but because of government imposed censure.
These are essential differences for democracy and freedom of expression. This is why independent courts, from the European Court of Human Rights to the Inter-American Court and national supreme courts, differentiate between freedom of information (which is subject to the duty of truthfulness) and freedom of expression (which is not). They likewise grant more leeway to opinions about those holding public office as a counterweight to their power.
Among all the manifestations of opinion, humor and satire are the freest, and often the most forceful. “Satire is the most efficient weapon against power: power does not tolerate humor, even so-called democratic leaders, because laughter frees man from his fears,” once said Darío Fo, the Italian comedian, playwright, and Nobel laureate.
The Revolution’s Changing Mood
Humor can be a thermometer for democracy. So shows the evolution of Rafael Correa’s administration, whose increasing intolerance for satire has gone hand in hand with the erosion of civil liberties and the rule of law.
The most lucid recounting that I know of Ecuador’s “citizens’ revolution” is one that I heard in Quito from María Paula Romo, a prominent member of Correa’s movement in the 2008 Constituent Assembly. The first stage was the progressive and democratic government that promulgated the 2008 constitution, which guaranteed civil liberties and added an exemplary catalog of economic and environmental rights. Correa seemed to achieve squaring the circle: a proposal set on equality without eroding basic liberties. There were more than enough reasons to be in a good mood and admire the Ecuadorian project.
In 2011 came a new stage, when the government took a personalist and vertical shift, which changed the mood of the citizens’ revolution and its attitude in the face of critics. The judicial reform of this same year aligned the courts with the executive, as we document in a report done by the Due Process of Law Foundation, Dejusticia, and the Institute for Legal Defense. This reform was the first of many that weakened democratic controls, from the right to protest (limited by criminal laws about terrorism that have been used against social movements) to political rights (restricted by legal and administrative obstacles aimed at opposing political parties and social movements). This was the stage at which many Correa supporters from the democratic left, like Romo, decided to leave the government and carve out a niche in the opposition.
From that time comes the law that has put Bonil between a rock and a hard place. The 2013 Organic Law of Communications imposes so many and harsh controls on the media and the freedom of expression that some have called it the “gag law.” It creates offenses so vague (like “media lynching” when a media outlet covers critically a public servant repeatedly) and with such invasive requirements (like media outlets’ duty to hire an advisor selected by a procedure created by the state) that in practice it gives government free range, through Supercom, to directly or indirectly censure critical information or opinions. According to Fundamedios, during the first year the law was in force, Supercom started 136 processes against media outlets and imposed sanctions in 42 of the cases.
The value of the sanctions is another mechanism for censure and self-censure. The fine of 90,000 dollars to Bonil and El Universo– equivalent to 2% of the newspaper’s revenue in three months– was calculated through the law. So is the 180,000 dollar fine that could have been levied on Bonil in early February, because the law says that every reoccurrence be paid with double the previous fine.
The intolerance in the face of criticism and the antidemocratic shift seem to follow this exponential growth in Ecuador today. For Romo and other observers, the turning point toward the current phase was the constitutional reform that allowed Correa’s indefinite reelection, which is currently making its way through the legislature, after being approved by the Constitutional Court.
From Charlie Hebdo to Bonil
While Parisians protest terrorist attempts to censor Charlie Hebdo, Ecuadorians fight to keep their Government from censuring independent media. Source: Flickr Creative Commons via Jeanne Menj.
The waves of Bonil’s persecution by the government will be felt beyond Ecuador because the case has two aspects that apply in other places. The initial accusation against the cartoonist alleged racial discrimination because the Congressman Augustín Delgado is Afro-Ecuadorian. Even though Bonil did not make any allusion to the skin color of the subject, the government and some anti-racist organizations have done so in their complaints. The artist publicly reiterated that that had not been his intention and apologized this interpretation of his cartoon. In the end, the charge he faced was for “socioeconomic discrimination” (though, once again, the drawing was about a congressman carrying out his post). All of which revives the debate between the balance between the important anti-discrimination laws and its risks for freedom of expression in Latin America. In the end, Supercom ordered Bonil’s newspaper, El Universo, to publish an apology in its website’s header within 72 hours and to keep it there for a week. Criminal prosecution will soon follow.
Only a few weeks after the terrorist attack against Charlie Hebdo in Paris, the Bonil case reminds us that the threats against satire and freedom of expression do not only come in the form of violence. It should come to no surprise that the Ecuadorian government decided to delay the hearing against Bonil, initially set for the 16th of January, when #JeSuisCharlie became a global sensation. That’s why Bonil has appeared in public holding a giant pencil while #YoSoyBonil trends in social networks in Ecuador.
*César Rodríguez Garavito is international director of the Center for the Study of Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia).