Ecuadoran news websites face harassment

May 19, 2016 11:14 AM ET

Ecuadoran news websites that published corruption allegations were the target of distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks on May 9, 2016, according to a joint letter Ecuadoran editors and press-freedom advocates sent to the Committee to Protect Journalists on May 13. In a DDoS attack, the attackers seek to overwhelm a website's server with rapid, repeated requests for information.

The editors and press-freedom advocates also said that the Ecuadoran communications regulator has sent what they called politically motivated copyright complaints to several online news sites.

On May 9, the news website Focus Ecuador suffered a cyberattack that temporarily shut down its website, according to press reports. The attack coincided with the website's plans to publish a report on alleged corruption in the state oil company, one of its editors said in the joint letter to CPJ. Within hours, the news websites Plan V and Mil Hojas were also subject to DDoS attacks after they published the corruption report originally slated to run in Focus Ecuador, the Ecuadoran press freedom group Fundamedios reported. The attacks forced Plan V to dedicate 18 hours of work to fixing the problem, the letter said.

This was not the first time that Plan V and Mil Hojas have come under attack. In July 2015, both sites experienced DDoS attacks after publishing information about the Ecuadoran government's contracts with Italian software company Hacking Team for the purchase of surveillance software, according to media reports.

The Ecuadoran state communications regulator SECOM has also sent Focus Ecuador requests to remove material from its site on the basis of copyright complaints. On May 6, the online news site received notifications of copyright violations over their use of images of Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa, according to a Fundamedios alert. The images in question were originally published on the president's Twitter account, according to the joint letter to CPJ. Other websites and Twitter users have also received copyright notifications, especially for the use of brief pictures or clips taken from presidential speeches aired on state television, according to another alert.

CPJ research has found that the Ecuadoran government has filed copyright takedown notifications related to critical content in the past.

Unknown hackers took over the Facebook page of the news website Ecuadorenvivo on April 23. Directors of Ecuadorenvivo managed to regain control of the main Facebook page but were unable to recover the news site's fan page, which was essential for driving traffic to the site, according to Alfonso Pérez, director of the news site. Pérez told CPJ that the site regularly published investigations into corruption and that prior to the attack they had published a video critical of the government's tax plan.

"Access to our site through Facebook represented 25 percent of our traffic," Pérez told CPJ in a telephone interview. "It took us five years to get 26,000 followers [on the fan page]. Who knows how long it will take to build that back up?"

Ecuadoran civil-society groups allege that the attacks are part of the broad decline in press freedom under the administration of President Rafael Correa. In 2013, the National Assembly approved a communications law that regulates editorial content and gives authorities the power to impose arbitrary sanctions on the press. Because this law does not apply to social media and has not been used to target online media, local journalists see the Internet as a refuge where they can express themselves more freely. The journalists and free-press advocates who wrote to CPJ said they feared that the recent harassment of news websites alleging corruption may signal an end to that refuge.

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