Latin America

A tale of two hacks: Ecuador’s continued assault on the press

Two days after Christmas, masked and armed police raided the home of Fernando Villavicencio in the predawn hours, hauling away a lifetime of data and documents.

Hours later, President Rafael Correa said Villavicencio — an opposition advisor who also writes about corruption and the oil industry — was suspected of hacking into the president’s email.

Ten days later, Ecuador’s state-run El Telégrafo newspaper wrote about a proposed online media outlet that is seeking funds in the United States, including with the National Endowment for Democracy — whose Cold War origins and “democracy building” efforts have made it a bogeyman in the Americas.

There was one problem with the El Telégrafo story: According to Martha Roldos, a former legislator and government critic who was pitching the idea, the only way the paper could have had access to the information was by hacking her email.

The twin “hacking” stories shed light on the small Andean nation that has been hounding the independent press even as it builds one of the most sophisticated state-run media apparatuses in the Americas, behind Venezuela and Cuba.

Correa, a U.S.-educated economist, has repeatedly called the media his “greatest enemy” and has leveled multimillion-dollar lawsuits against those who cross him. This week, as he celebrated his seventh year in power, there were no signs of a truce.

And if the allegations of government hacking are true it would mean the administration’s media war is getting dirtier.

Many of the documents that El Telégrafo cites and reprints “didn’t exist in physical form,” Roldos said. “The only place they existed was in my email.”

El Telégrafo Director Orlando Pérez wouldn’t say how the paper got the information.

“All of our work is done within ethical parameters,” he told the Miami Herald. “We have the right to protect our sources.”

To Roldos, however, the fact that the mere proposal for an online news site became a government target “is another example of administration paranoia.”

“Any attempt at transparency is seen as a move to overthrow the regime,” she added.

In the story, El Telégrafo said the new outlet would be an opposition mouthpiece and insinuated it might be part of a CIA destabilization plot. State-run TV began broadcasting spots depicting Roldos as a villain in what appears to be a coordinated smear campaign.

For decades, Ecuador’s media was concentrated in the hands of a powerful few with entrenched political interests. When Correa came to power in 2006, he began dismantling conglomerates with, for the most part, public consent.

Last year, he pushed through a raft of regulations and a powerful watchdog to enforce them.

The law is “one of the most restrictive pieces of legislation enacted in the Americas in a long time,” said Carlos Lauria, Senior Americas Program Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Among the rules, it expressly protects personal communication — something El Telégrafo may have run afoul of, regardless of how the paper got its information, since Roldos and her correspondents did not provide consent.

Roldos is filing charges but has little faith El Telégrafo will be punished — much less raided like Villavicencio was for the mere suspicion of having hacked an account.

None of this seems to hurt Correa. He easily won reelection last year through 2017 and enjoys enormous popularity at home as he’s built roads and schools, and brought the country a degree of political stability not seen in decades.

Abroad, he’s often perceived as a free-speech champion for granting asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has been holed up at the country’s embassy in London for more than a year. In polls, Correa routinely ranks as one of the most popular leaders in the hemisphere.

But the accolades haven’t made him magnanimous. Correa uses his weekly national broadcasts to skewer critics and attack opponents. Last week he raked a Newsweek reporter over the coals after she said the government was failing to protect an isolated Amazonian tribe. Earlier, it was the turn of cartoonist Xavier “Bonil” Bonilla, who portrayed the Villavicencio raid as a Christmas present to Correa — police confiscating evidence of administration corruption.

“The problem is not whether it’s a cartoon or not, it’s that they’re lying and that’s serious,” Correa told his national audience. "We Ecuadoreans should reject lies and liars … particularly if they are government haters disguised as amusing cartoonists.”

A few days after the outburst, the communications superintendent, a watchdog charged with monitoring and sanctioning the media, opened an investigation into Bonilla and his newspaper El Universo — which lost a $40 million libel lawsuit to Correa in 2012, only to be granted a last-minute pardon.

Repeated calls to an assistant of the communications superintendent seeking comment went unanswered.

“Ecuador has seen a serious, serious deterioration of press freedom,” said Lauria. “By filing debilitating lawsuits, both criminal and civil, Correa has tried to impose censorship on talk of corruption in his administration.”

Juan Carlos Calderón is the editor of Plan V, an online investigative outlet formed last year after Vanguardia magazine, one of the last bastions of investigative reporting, went under.

Villavicencio, whose home was raided last month, writes for the site. In a separate case, Villavicencio this week was sentenced to 18 months in prison and ordered to pay part of a $140,000 fine to Correa for libel.

Calderón said he has no doubts that both the raid and the ruling are linked to Villavicencio’s work exposing corruption and his investigation into the government’s ties with Chinese oil companies.

“The raid was a raid against [Plan V],” Calderón said. “It was absolutely retaliation.”

Calderón has also felt Correa’s ire first hand. In 2012, he and his writing partner were ordered to pay $1 million to the president for “psychological harm” caused by their book The Big Brother, which detailed government dealings of Correa’s older sibling, Fabricio.

Correa ultimately dropped the fine amid growing international pressure, but the incident reflects the perils of doing investigative reporting, Calderón said.

“Reporters who once claimed to be very brave have capitulated due to fear,” he said. “And those of us who haven’t are increasingly alone, we’re pariahs.”

A recent episode illustrates the press’ timidity, Calderón said. A few weeks ago, Correa complained about a government prison contract that had seen almost 50 percent cost overruns.

“No private or public media outlet followed up on the story,” Calderón said. “Nobody’s willing to touch it even though it was the president himself who denounced it.”

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