Bonil: “The Role of a Cartoonist Is to Be a Dissident”

Ecuadorian cartoonist Bonil — a frequent target of governmental censors and recently threatened by ISIS — spoke with free speech advocacy group and watchdog organization Freedom House about the dire state of free expression in his home country.

When Rafael Correa took the Ecuadorian presidency in 2007, what he called a “democratizing” of the media turned out to be a series of new communications laws and regulations that limit free press, specifically what can be said about the government. As a result, cartoonist Xavier Bonilla, or Bonil — who pulls no punches when criticizing the government in his cartoons — has become a frequent target of Correa’s administration. He was recently charged with “socioeconomic discrimination” and fined $500,000 by the Ecuadorian government in an attempt to stifle free speech. This is not the first time that Bonil and his work have come under attack, nor will it probably be the last.

“There have always been tensions between the government and the press,” Bonil commented during his interview with Freedom House. “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.”

With laws that require networks to air a one-hour long show with President Correa every Saturday, that prevent Correa’s ministers from attending select media groups press conference or give interviews, and that allow the Correa to endorse specific newspapers and media sources “it is almost impossible to do investigative journalism,” said Bonil. Press in Ecuador has become regulated, intimidated, and prosecutable, and as Bonil states, the repressive actions being taken against cartoonists and journalists has even extended to and impacted everyday citizens and what news and media they can consume.

Needless to say, the state of free speech in Ecuador has progressively become anything but free, and Bonil fears that the situation is only getting worse:

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.

Bonil adds, “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.” Read the full interview here.

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Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!