Seven months after Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa flirted with the idea of offering asylum to former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, intercepted communications and leaked emails are again making headlines in the Andean country. This time, the story is not about international surveillance but a window onto the latest front in the ever-escalating war between the president and his critics.
Last week, the Ecuadoran state-run daily El Telégrafo published an article alleging an international plan to destabilize the government and quoting emails between opposition politician Martha Roldós and employees of the United States-based organizations Washington Office on Latin America and Open Society Foundations, as well as the U.S. government’s National Endowment for Democracy. Named as co-conspirators were the prominent Latin American journalists Gonzalo Guillén, Juan Carlos Calderón, Cristian Zurita and Giannina Segnini. What was the basis of this nefarious plot? According to El Telégrafo, Roldós’s desire to create an independent news outlet in Ecuador and the organizations’ interest in potentially funding the venture. The emails allude to Correa’s dismal record on press freedom, which includes criminal defamation lawsuits against journalists and one of the most restrictive communications laws in the hemisphere.
Being branded a traitor or spy by virtue of receiving funding from governmental and nongovernmental U.S.-based organizations is nothing new for critics of the Ecuadoran government. Just ask Ecuadoran press freedom group Fundamedios and its director, César Ricaurte, who have faced threats and official harassment for years due for criticism of the Correa administration. It’s a tactic the president clearly learned from the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Russian President Vladimir Putin, both of whom, among others, have used U.S. funding–and its political exercise during the Cold War era–as a justification for cracking down on critical organizations.
But the use of electronic surveillance methods and hacking appears to signal a new tactic in the conflict. It’s unclear who exactly was behind the leaking of Roldós’s emails, though the politician has told reporters she believes the government or its supporters are responsible. (The government hasn’t said much on the matter, but El Telégrafo editor Orlando Perez told the Associated Press that his team conducted “its work without violating any ethical norms.”) Journalist Pablo Jaramillo recently made similar claims that his emails had been intercepted and accused the government, but didn’t provide details or evidence.
Recent reports suggest that despite its outrage at the NSA’s activities, the Ecuadoran government may have more sophisticated surveillance capacities than it lets on. After the Snowden revelations, the U.S. website Buzzfeed and the critical Ecuadoran daily El Universo published articles alleging that the government was secretly acquiring its own advanced surveillance technologies, accusations at which the government took offense and apparently sought to repress.
The Correa administration has been quick to paint itself as a victim, accusing journalists behind critical exposés of having illegally accessed the emails of officials. Most recently, government officials–accompanied by a heavily armed and masked SWAT team– conducted a late night raid of journalist Fernando Villavicencio’s home on December 26 and walked off with his computer and files, according to the reporter. Villavicencio has written several investigative reports alleging government corruption, particularly in the oil industry, for the critical online publication Plan V. He is also an adviser to the opposition politician Cléver Jiménez (whose office was also raided by officials) and is politically active.
Weeks before the raid, a member of Correa’s administration ordered an investigation into how Jiménez had accessed internal emails related to the government’s handling of a long-running lawsuit against the company Chevron, on which Villavicencio later reported, according to news reports. (Villavicencio has been a thorn in the government’s side for many years, both for his journalistic and political activity, and on Tuesday lost his appeal in a case that sentences him and Jiménez to 18 months in prison on charges of defaming the president, according to Fundamedios. Correa’s complaint was a countersuit to a criminal complaint the two filed against him in 2011 on charges of crimes against humanity for his actions during a heated police rebellion.) Fundamedios believes the government’s actions against Villavicencio could be reprisal for his investigations in Plan V as well as his activities with Jiménez.
After the raid, the government apparently had a change of heart, alleging that Chevron, rather than Jiménez, had hacked its communications and passed on the contents to the congressman, according to news reports. But it’s not the first time officials have accused a journalist who revealed sensitive information about government activities of illegal methods. In July, when Snowden’s ultimate destination was still unknown, Ecuadoran officials publicly threatened to take legal action against the U.S.-based television network Univisión for hacking into government communications after it published official emails about Snowden’s asylum appeal. Univisión Vice President and News Director Daniel Coronell told the Associated Press at the time that “I want to emphasize that 100% of Univisión’s journalists’ actions are legal, they are done within the framework of the law, and secondly we value the protection of our sources as a universal principal of the freedom of the press.”
As CPJ has documented, Correa’s foray into the international freedom of information debate in the past two years has starkly contrasted with his record on the matter at home. Government officials seemed not to grasp the irony of debating a law that criminalized the publishing of classified documents and threatening legal action against reporters who published leaked documents about Snowden’s status as the leaker’s fate was being debated. With Snowden now in Russia and Julian Assange in quasi-permanent exile in the Ecuadoran embassy in London, the international distractions have faded and Correa has continued his crackdown on the press mostly unfettered. It’s unclear how far the administration is willing to go in the fight, but while the foreign media’s attention has mostly shifted, the story for Ecuadoran journalists is far from over.