The War Against the Press is Open and Declared in Ecuador: An Interview with Cartoonist Bonil
Since 2013, Xavier Bonilla, who draws under the penname “Bonil,” has been a thorn in the side of the Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa. Ecuador ranks 108 out of 180 countries in Reporters without Borders’ 2015 World Press Freedom Index. In 2013, President Correa publicly accused the cartoonist of lying to the public when the newspaper El Universo published a Bonil strip depicting a a police raid on the home of an opposition journalist. President Correa demanded Bonil “correct” the cartoon and El Universo was fined $90,000 for publishing the original piece. In August of 2014, Bonil was charged first with racism and then with socio-economic discrimination for a cartoon mocking an Afro-Ecuadorian congressman’s stutter-ridden speech. As a result of what Bonil calls a “climate of hostility and harassment against citizens and journalists,” in Ecuador last March he received a written threat from a student claiming to be a member of ISIS.
In June of 2015, Sampsonia Way interviewed Bonil via email about his beginnings as a cartoonist, and how President Correa’s suppression of the press has influenced his work.
How did you begin drawing cartoons and why did you become a political cartoonist?
Like many, I started drawing cartoons in school, usually for the professor. It was more of a spontaneous inclination rather than a conscious decision. However, over time the opportunity to publish that definitely directed me toward [political cartoons].
What cartoonists did you admire as role models when you were beginning your career?
When I was boy, not a lot of comic material had reached Ecuador. At the time, there was no Internet either. But after a stay in Paris during the 70s, my father brought back home many books from French and Spanish authors. This nurtured my interest, fascination, and taste for such art. I was 11 years old, and by then I had already seen magazines such as Charlie Hebdo, and Hara Kiri; French illustrators like Sempé, Topor, and Serre; Spanish ones like Chumy Chumez, and Perich. They had a positive impact on me as they provided me with a critical background in the political and social spheres.
What is the importance of political cartoons in Ecuador?
Even though Ecuador does not have as big of a tradition in the comic genre as other countries, cartoons also have their history. At the end of the nineteenth century, they were part of a political struggle between liberals and conservatives. Nowadays, they are also included in the newspapers. I have been drawing for 30 years and currently my cartoons are angering the president, who has prosecuted me on two occasions and fined the newspaper that publishes my drawings.
How has press freedom in Ecuador changed over the course of your 30 year career? How does the climate for cartoonists now compare to when you were first starting out?
When I started publishing in the newspapers, the president of the time was considered to have great authoritarianism and disrespect of the law. Journalists faced confrontation and insults, and there were cases of newspaper retaliation. But what we face today is different because the war against private media communications has been established as an opened and declared government policy. Therefore, the climate is hostile not only for cartoonists, but also for journalism in general.
What is the President’s motivation for fining El Universo and reprimanding you? Do you think President Correa fears cartoonists like yourself? What threat do cartoonists pose to Correa’s administration?
Certainly, cartoons are not the only thing that bothers President Correa. Since the beginning of his term he has displayed interest in controlling any hint of criticism. But more than being a topic related to his temperament or intransigent personality, this is a response to the script that governments, such as Venezuela, Nicaragua, Argentina, and others, have proposed as a control of constructing the social narrative. The seriousness of the issue here is that they pretend to do it from within the state. And they control the state.
Despite Correa’s unfriendly attitude to the press in his own country, for the past three years his administration has provided refuge to Julian Assange, who has been living in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. How do you explain this hypocrisy?
Seriously, when I read this question I immediately laughed. And I decided to write it down as well. It is all a big hypocrisy and contradiction that is for the government’s publicity purposes, and is not a genuine defense [of Assange]. If Correa was convinced about freedom of expression, he would simply respect it at home.
How has persecution from President Correa influenced your work?
In some cases it has increased the subtlety. I do not draw as much physiognomy, but rather I turn to symbols. Above all, it is the newspaper that must ensure that its articles, cartoons or pictures will not be a reason for prosecution and sanctions. In fact, the newspaper El Universo has been fined for not publishing a news article the way the government wanted it to be. [The government] demanded a “copy” of the news article and then the newspaper agreed to publish the government’s version; however it was fined more than $300,000 US dollars for not publishing the text they sent, which included the headline. That’s how they want to impose the content and headlines [on the press].
In February of 2015, you were found guilty of breaking the Law of Communication with a cartoon that promoted “socioeconomic discrimination.” What does the application of this anti-discrimination law mean for the future of press freedom in Ecuador?
This sanction only proved, once again, the subjectivity and arbitrariness with which journalistic content is judged. With the same level of arbitrariness, this particular sanction will create a new case of “discrimination” in the future. This represents a fine of 10 percent of the average invoice of the last trimester. Every reoccurrence doubles the value of the previous fine as it is exponential. The method therefore consists of financially weakening and strangling the media.
In March you received a threat from a young Ecuadorian who claims to be a member of ISIS. How has President Correa’s suppression of the press facilitated these kinds of threats?
President Correa launched a discourse of hatred not only against journalists and cartoonists but also against social and political actors, even against average people. Recently, a 17-year-old boy made a rude gesture when the presidential car was driving on the street. He was arrested and convicted. It is not the only case. At least 20 citizens have been arrested for “insulting” the president. The president is the one who creates a climate of aggression and stigmatization as he endlessly insults people, and this environment allows for those kinds of threats. I do not take it too seriously because Ecuador, geopolitically, is not related to ISIS.
What effect do you hope your political cartoons will have on the future of press freedom in Ecuador?
I can notice reactions through social networks such as Facebook or Twitter. There are a lot of people who identify themselves with my drawings, encourage me to carry on, show solidarity and express similar opinions to mine. This is a cartoon: a space of complicity and social cohesion.