Xavier “Bonil” Bonilla and South American cartoonists’ battle with censorship

The #jesuischarlie campaign might have slowed to a trickle, but cartoonists around the world are still struggling against censorship.

Five days after gunmen opened fire on an office of cartoonists in Paris on 7 January, an Ecuadorean court postponed a court case against a satirist of its own. A reason was never given, but it clearly wasn’t a good time to attempt to prosecute a cartoonist – especially when it could lead to a crippling fine or jail sentence.

Now that the #jesuischarlie flood has trickled out, the hearing went ahead last Monday morning in Quito. The cartoonist, Xavier “Bonil” Bonilla, was sanctioned on Friday and the case now looks set to proceed to the criminal courts, where a jail sentence could follow. Meanwhile, the whole affair largely slipped through the international news agenda, despite encapsulating the points that had the world in uproar last month: offence, media freedom, and the slippery slope of legislation that can erode free speech.

“It’s racism, pure and simple,” declared the Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa of a Bonil image during an angry tirade on the leader’s weekly television broadcast. The picture of one of his assemblymen, former national footballer Augustín “Tín” Delgado, was published last August and featured a play on words – Pobre Tín, meaning Poor Tin, and Pobretón, meaning poor guy (with no money). The joke implied that people may feel sorry for Delgado for fumbling a political speech, but no one feels sorry for his hefty government salary.

Calling this hate speech is surely an almighty stretch. What is more “pure and simple” is Correa’s increasing intolerance of criticism and satire. His skin has become progressively thinner throughout his eight years as president, so that now just one scratch can have him hemorrhaging rage. Most recently he’s been after anonymous social media accounts that post humorous memes about him. He uses his TV show to unmask them, giving their real names and ages, prompting a deluge of revenge tweets from his supporters.  It is clearly not the most responsible way to tackle the growing problem of internet harassment.

As political cartoons go, the image of Correa’s colleague, Delgado, was pretty tame, and probably not Bonil’s most striking work (using a montage of photos rather than his usual pencil-drawn caricatures). It might have been soon forgotten had Correa not launched a vehement attack against it on national television, giving it the full Streisand effect.

The racism charge didn’t stick and was later changed to “economic discrimination”, based on Delgado’s poor background and lack of college education. Bonil was found guilty under the 2013 communications law. His newspaper, El Universo, was asked publish apology on the front of its site within 72 hours and to keep it there for a week. The criminal case is set to follow.

This is the second time Bonil – who is nominated ­for an Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award ­– has been pursued under the communications law. He because its very first case, in January 2014, when El Universo was fined $93,000 for a cartoon about a supposedly heavy-handed police raid on the home of an opposition journalist/advisor. The law states that fines can increase with each transgression. The Delgado cartoon has not incurred a financial penalty, but the threat hovers above the publisher, and Bonil has been formally warned.

Delgado ­– whose original speech has been viewed over 250,000 times on YouTube ­­– remains resolute in his criticism and believes the cartoon was an affront to his “human dignity”. Human dignity is perhaps one of the slipperiest phases within free speech debates. You’ll find the very same wording in guidelines issued by the Council for Mass Media in Finland, a self-regulatory body of the Finnish media that also has the power to order public apologies and fines: “The human dignity of every individual must be respected”. Earlier this month, Finland topped the Reporters Without Borders Media Freedom Index, while Ecuador dropped from 95th place to 108th, showing that anyone can talk the talk, but interpretation is key.

In the UK, when debates turn to state involvement in media regulation, some say that our democracy is too advanced for serious abuses; that only countries with evil dictators are at risk. But Correa is not dictator, despite what his critics sometimes say. The people he is attacking are not even hardcore dissidents. The admin of Crudo Ecuador, one of social media accounts Correa is on the warpath against, told the Associated Press he had voted for the president before and probably would again. There is even a Barcelona-based company cleaning up the internet on his behalf, filing takedown requests to YouTube and Twitter. Perhaps he should take heed of advice from comedian John Oliver, who said in recent riff on his US show Last Week Tonight: “Stop googling yourself, you’re the President of Ecuador!”.

In the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks, amid all the tribute cartoons of pencils as weapons, one of the most apt and most shared was an old cartoon from the New Yorker. The one with the empty white box, captioned: “Please enjoy this culturally, ethnically, religiously and politically correct cartoon responsibly. Thank you.” If Correa has his way, this white space will fill the spot Bonil’s drawings once occupied.

Vicky Baker is the deputy editor of Index on Censorship magazine, which published Xavier Bonilla’s story in its current issue. Bonilla has been nominated for a 2015 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression award for continually standing up for free speech