Bogotá, February 3, 2014- The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the decision by Ecuador's media oversight agency on Friday to use the country's communications law to sanction the leading local daily El Universo over a critical cartoon. The agency fined the daily and demanded that the cartoonist "correct" the cartoon within 72 hours, according to news reports.
"It has been apparent for some time that Ecuador's new communications law was designed to muzzle journalists critical of the administration. That this has been extended to cartoonists is ridiculous," said Carlos Lauría, CPJ's senior program coordinator for the Americas, from New York. "Ecuadoran authorities should reverse this decision and allow the press to function freely without fear of official reprisal. Tolerance for dissent--whether written or drawn--is a touchstone of any democratic government."
The Superintendency of Information and Communication, or SUPERCOM, ordered El Universo to pay a fine equal to 2 percent of its revenue over the past three months. It also ordered the cartoonist, Xavier Bonilla--known by his penname Bonil--to modify the text that ran underneath the original in a new cartoon that must be printed in El Universo. Bonil's lawyer, Ramiro García, called the decision unconstitutional and said the cartoon was not a news report but a humoristic work of art, which was not covered by the communications law. The paper said in an editorial that it would fight the decision.
SUPERCOM's decision came immediately after complaints about the cartoon by President Rafael Correa. During a televised speech on January 4, 2014, Correa called Bonil an "ink assassin" and called for an inquiry. Two days later, SUPERCOM opened its investigation of the cartoonist and El Universo.
Bonil's drawing depicted a December 26, 2013, raid in which agents searched the home and confiscated the computers and documents of journalist Fernando Villavicencio. Villavicencio has written investigative reports alleging government corruption, is an advisor to an opposition politician, and in 2011 filed a criminal complaint against Correa, accusing him of crimes against humanity for his actions during a police rebellion.
The cartoon, published two days after the raid, shows agents hauling away Villavicencio's computers. The accompanying text said, "Police and officials raid Fernando Villavicencio's home and take away documentation of denunciations of corruption."
Correa has insisted the raid was related to the journalist's use of what Correa claimed were illegally obtained government emails about his administration's handling of a lawsuit against the U.S. oil company Chevron.
At a news conference, Carlos Ochoa, the head of SUPERCOM, said the cartoonist's assertion that the confiscated documents were related to government corruption was opinion rather than fact. As a result, he said the cartoon "stigmatized" and "delegitimized" the actions of the government officials who carried out the raid. He called the cartoon a "deliberate act of disinformation" designed to fool the public.
El Universo violated Article 25 of Ecuador's communications law that prohibits the media from taking an "institutional position" over the guilt or innocence of people involved in lawsuits or investigations. The controversial law, passed last year, is one of the most restrictive in the hemisphere, according to CPJ research.
Ecuador has a dismal record on press freedom, including criminal defamation lawsuits and smear campaigns against journalists as well as restrictive legislation, according to CPJ research.