LIMA, Peru – An opposition politician says electronic documents stolen from her email are being used by government media in a smear campaign in what could be the first case of a public figure’s digital privacy being violated for political ends in Ecuador.
Martha Roldos, a former presidential candidate, told The Associated Press that she believes someone allied with or in the government stole the documents to target her for “character assassination” because of concerns about the investigative news agency she is working to create.
TV spots depicting Roldos as an enemy of the state began airing Monday night on a state-owned channel and a story in the government newspaper El Telegrafo last week presented what it called evidence that Roldos was trying to get U.S. help in hurting Correa’s administration.
The reports quoted electronic documents that detail communications involving Roldos with groups such as the Open Society Foundation, which funds some independent media outlets in Latin America, and the U.S. government’s National Endowment for Democracy.
Press advocate Cesar Ricaurte of the Fundamedios watchdog group said Tuesday that more serious than the email hacking “is that a government newspaper publishes this information with persecution in mind.”
If indeed the government is behind the leak, “this is sleazy and anti-democratic in the first order and plainly a violation of human rights,” said Adam Isacson of the left-leaning Washington Office on Latin America, the author of one of the emails quoted in the reports.
El Telegrafo described Roldos’ proposed news agency as a front for political activity and suggested the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) was a front for CIA subversion of unfriendly regimes.
“You know what the NED is? All investigations say that the NED is the financing arm of the CIA,” Correa said Saturday during his weekly TV and radio show, echoing the El Telegrafo report.
The bipartisan-run endowment, funded with U.S. taxpayer dollars, was created in 1983 during the Cold War. But Isacson noted that one recent endowment fellow is a Colombian journalist who has exposed abuses by that country’s right.
El Telegrafo’s editor, Orlando Perez, declined to say how he obtained the electronic documents, but said his investigative unit did “its work without violating any ethical norms.”
Roldos said her email account with the Canada-based Hushmail service was broken into in a Dec. 2 “phishing” attack. She said she got an email telling her the account was blocked and followed instructions by entering her password. She said her computer froze up afterward.
Several of her partners in the news agency initiative also got phishing emails in their Hushmail accounts, and the AP traced its password trap to a fake Hushmail site registered to a Cyprus-based webhosting service. A phone call to the number listed with the service’s domain registrar and an email went unanswered.
The fake site was taken down Wednesday after the AP also alerted Hush Communications, which owns Hushmail.
Its CEO told the AP that the company works hard to protect accountholders from phishing when it identifies a widespread attack.
“If it is a targeted attack it is very difficult to detect,” said CEO Ben Cutler.
Correa’s generous social welfare programs have won him 70 per cent approval ratings among Ecuadoreans, but opposition activists and rights groups describe him as thin-skinned about criticism and say his intolerance of dissent appears to be worsening.
Last month, his administration dissolved by decree the environmental group Pachamama, which was fighting oil drilling in Ecuador’s Amazon on behalf of indigenous peoples.
Associated Press writer Gonzalo Solano in Quito, Ecuador, contributed to this report.