This is Xavier Bonilla– Bonil, to his enthusiastic audience. He is a prolific political cartoonist whose insightful work is published almost daily in Ecuador´s most popular non–sensationalist newspaper. Incidentally, this very newspaper, El Universo, has had a particularly difficult time under President Rafael Correa´s government. In 2011, President Correa won a libel suit which demanded a $40 million compensation from El Universo and 3–year long prison sentences for its CEOs and the author of an opinion piece. The object of the defamation lawsuit was an Op-Ed by Emilio Palacio which, the Judge claimed, had no proof for a controversial accusation that suggested the President had direct responsibility for the chaos and deaths that resulted from a police revolt in 2010. The lawsuit catalyzed a wave of alarm for journalists and freedom of the press advocates around the world, concerned that such an arbitrary, unconstitutional measure would set a dangerous precedent for freedom of speech in the country. Palacio fled to the US as a political refugee, where he continues manifesting his opposition to the current administration. Correa eventually “pardoned” all of them.
But the fact that he won the sentence spoke for itself about the perilous state of the “free press”– viewed by the government as the opposition– in Ecuador. Before that, and after, worldwide watchdogs had manifested their preoccupation with Correa´s aggressive tone and abuses of power when it came to the media that made him and his cabinet uncomfortable. Last year, a questionable, to say the least, law of communication was approved. It is considered one of the most repressive communication regulations in the entire region.
And last week, Bonil became its first target, and its first victim. In the picture, Bonil holds two kinds of pencils. The one on his right (reader´s left) is a normal pencil, with just a tiny eraser. The one on his left is the opposite– it has the biggest eraser and a fragile tip for drawing. His message is simple. The first pencil is the one all cartoonists– and freedom advocates– should possess. The other one is the one authoritarian governments wish they had. The sentence has ordered El Universo to pay 2% of its monthly profits and has requested a rectification from Bonil, who has said that he will limit himself to placing quotations on his next drawing to avoid the government from accusing him of performing “a deliberate act of disinformation.” The President called him an ink assassin, a lawyer, and a coward, among other names, for depicting another worrisome event from December, when a government-ordered raid on an opposition member´s home took personal possessions under the pretext of investigating robbed documents and hacked correspondence. You can read all about the lawsuit and its context here: http://www.cpj.org/2014/02/cartoonist-sanctioned-under-ecuadors-communication.php
But what I wish to underscore with all this is the importance of preserving the authenticity of freedom in one of its most wonderful, and sometimes most vulnerable, states: humor. Humor is not only a political tool. It is not only meant to preserve the power of the people, of their opinions, thoughts, and feelings, with respect to all governments, not only authoritarian ones. It is meant to make our lives lighter, to improve our days, to make us smile. It is meant to lift burdens, grudges, and stereotypes from our hearts. It is also meant for calling us to deeper reflections about the issues that concern us in our daily lives. Cartoons are the soul of humor, and humor the soul of cartoons. In this relationship lies the broader principle of respect, critical thinking, and freedom. Censoring a cartoonist´s wit, their essence, is plainly ridiculous. But because it is a symptom of the government´s intolerant powerful apparatus, it is much more than that. It is a frightening thing. Specially, it is a heartbreaking thing. The only thing we can wish, for our sakes, as the ones who benefit the most from cartoons, is that cartoonist´s pencils will continue to come in their original shape, and that we will have the courage to fight for them to survive. The good news is that cartoonists don´t just need a pencil to keep their freedom alive. Because cartooning is what they are, it is what they can never cease to be, regardless of any impositions that might come their way. And that is their lasting legacy. They contribute to a more peaceful world just by being who they are and doing what they do. And that is worth preserving.