Perspectives April 1, 2015
An Interview with Ecuadorian Political Cartoonist ‘Bonil’
Freedom House interviewed Xavier Bonilla—a cartoonist known by the pen name Bonil who has come under attack from the government of Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa.
The following interview with Xavier Bonilla—a cartoonist known by the pen name Bonil who has come under attack from the government of Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa—was conducted by Freedom House during his recent visit to Washington.
How has the climate for journalism and freedom of the press changed in Ecuador since President Rafael Correa took office in 2007? What has been the effect of the passage of legislation like the Communications Law, among other steps taken by the government?
There have always been tensions between the government and the press. This is the first time in the country that there is a specific governmental policy directed to control the media. They are shaping the situation as though they were “democratizing the media” and limiting the abuses of media companies. However, the result has been to control and silence the press. The “democratization” did not mean to expand the number of people talking, but to limit the media to whomever the government wanted to hear. Since the beginning, they changed the constitution and created a new communications law. The minister of communications said that the press had become like overgrown grass (weeds) that must be cut down every day. For the last two years, the new communications law has been used to penalize the media and to impose fines on media companies. In addition to this, every Saturday the president has a TV show that lasts hours, and he uses one of the segments of his show to stigmatize and attack journalists who criticize his regime. Because of the new communications law, practicing journalism has become very complicated in Ecuador. President Correa demanded that his ministers not be allowed to attend press conferences or give interviews to certain private media, accusing them of being “mercantilist.” Correa destroys newspapers by going on his TV show and asking people not to buy or read these specific newspapers. Under these circumstances, it is almost impossible to do investigative journalism.
What has been the effect of high-profile lawsuits?
Evidently it has an intimidation effect at a personal level, whether or not that individual can withstand the threats and the pressure. The financial effects are also significant because media companies have to deal with huge fines. The first lawsuit that Correa filed was against the biggest newspaper, El Universo, and he asked for $80 million. When small or mid-size newspapers see this, they wonder what could happen to them if they are subjected to these kinds of lawsuits. They think twice before writing or publishing anything. The theme of freedom of expression is not only a problem for journalists and the media, but it is wider than that, it is a problem for all of Ecuadorian society. Not only are journalists and media subject to these persecutions, but it is also bloggers and social-media users with a Facebook page who are subject to this hostile persecution as well, and they do not have someone behind them to support them. This problem is not only about journalists being sanctioned for what they write, but also about citizens being sanctioned or punished for attending a protest or pursuing any type of public expression in the streets. In one case, the president was in his official car driving through a protest when someone yelled at him from the crowd, so he got out of the car to personally confront the person who had insulted him. This has happened many times.
As a result of your work, you’ve been fined and sanctioned by government institutions, forced to issue public apologies and corrections of your cartoons, and received hate mail. Have you, at any point, considered changing careers or softening the criticisms that underpin much of your published work, due to the risks that this work can entail? Do you think that the hostile rhetoric of President Correa toward Ecuadorian media, civil society groups, and individual journalists (including you) has contributed to a climate in which journalists and activists are more frequently threatened, maligned, or publicly attacked?
No, I have never considered changing my career. I would like to ask the same question to the president. Would President Correa decide to change his profession because he received criticism from cartoonists? Last year the president said that I was a politician hiding myself behind a cartoonist profession, and he challenged me to compete against him in the election, saying I wouldn’t even get one vote. I countered this by asking the president to resolve our problems with cartoons, so I challenged the president to run for Cartoonist.
How do you see your role within Ecuadorian society, and what motivates you to publish political cartoons? Do you see yourself as an artist, a journalist, or something else? In your view, what effect should a “political cartoon” have on citizens in a society like that of Ecuador?
Paradoxically, the role of a cartoonist is to be a dissident, to not have a role. This allows me to see what is happening from outside the system. It allows me to be a critical voice, to be a discordant voice in the choir, the choir being the unanimous voice of the regime.
Looking toward the future, how do you see the situation for freedom of expression in Ecuador improving or deteriorating?
I see the situation deteriorating. In 2014, it became more evident that the government is intent on punishing and oppressing critical voices from media and civil society, as well as private citizens who are on Twitter or social media. This illustrates the growing intolerance against dissident or critical voices. There has also been an increase in the fines against media companies. In addition to that, Correa’s government has been increasingly attacking and denying the role of international bodies like the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights as well as attacking organizations that defend human rights and the freedom of expression, such as the Inter-American Press Association. This is an example of how the situation of freedom of expression is deteriorating.
What about the situation for internet freedom?
The social-media space is also becoming less free. The government has promoted a debate on the role of the government in controlling content on social-media networks. Both the president and the communications director expressed these opinions. A few years ago, the comments sections of online newspapers were censored. They are not interested in a public debate, they are only interested in silencing voices.