The conflict that the President of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, has with the majority of media in his country is no secret. Since approving the Organic Law of Communication (LOC by its initials in Spanish) in 2013, different national and international organizations have denounced its restrictions on freedom of speech and press freedoms in the country.
In this context, the internet became a space that Ecuadorian journalists, and even civil society, have carved out to be able to freely exercise these rights. Nevertheless, the government, its public officials and supporters seem to have developed a strategy to also encroach on these rights online.
This is what representatives from digital native media outlets Plan V, 4 Pelagatos, Fundación Mil Hojas, Focus Ecuador, Ecuador en Vivo, the website La República, and the Ecuadorian NGO Fundamedios stated in a letter sent to the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas on May 17.
The letter states that these media outlets have been victims of different actions carried out by the government and its public officials that seek to “censor” publications in digital pages and on social media. Such actions, the letter adds, go from hacking and denial-of-service attacks (known as DDoS attacks) to the application of United States intellectual property law.
“These actions have been sufficiently systematic to evidence a Government policy that seeks to silence anyone who thinks differently,” the letter states and also goes on to describe the actions that have taken place over recent months.
For example, since March 2015 when Focus Ecuador began its operations, the website has received at least three attacks which have left it out of service. On May 9, just before publishing a report on allegations of corruption in the country’s oil industry, which they had previously announced, the website was hacked, according to the letter.
This report was published by the websites Plan V and Mil Hojas. However, “within hours, these sites suffered similar attacks,” the letter highlighted.
According to the technical report of the web administrator for Plan V, the website received more than 400 access requests per second on May 9, which was over 300 percent of its capacity. At least 29 IP addresses were detected from where the majority of the access requests came, 20 of them were registered in China, according to the letter.
“Beyond affecting the flow of information and blocking readers’ access to content, this kind of attack also has additional economic impacts for a website of this kind,” the letter asserted and it also highlighted that the most read article was precisely the one that was going to be published by Focus Ecuador.
On the other hand, the Facebook page for the website Ecuador en Vivo was eliminated after an online attack on April 23, which resulted in the loss of the 26,000 followers that it had. According to the website’s director, their Facebook page was hacked, their contacts were deleted, and afterwards the page was eliminated.
According to the letter, LaRepública.ec has suffered at least a dozen DDoS attacks in the last two years. The website, which has devoted itself to streaming live footage, has noticed that the attacks begin right when it is about to stream marches, protests, press conferences, or events that it has previously advertised.
In addition to cyber attacks, copyright law has been used to control the content of 4 Pelagatos. According to the letter, on February 17 and 18 the website received notices from its servers, CloudFlare and Amazon, about a complaint that had been filed by the National Communications Ministry of Ecuador (Secom for its initials in Spanish) over alleged copyright infringement. The complaint was based on the website’s use of 43 photos that had been published on the president’s Flickr account.
On March 30, one of the media organization’s videos on Youtube was deleted after a complaint over copyright infringement that had been levied by the Secom. The video had used a fragment from an episode of Enlace Ciudadano, the televised weekly message from President Correa. On May 5, CloudFare informed them of another complaint initiated by the Secom over the MashiMachine application, created by the website, which uses images from the Enlace Ciudadano broadcasts. On May 6, the Secom asked Amazon to delete an article because of “inappropriate appropriation of public documents.” On May 10, again after a complaint from the Secom, the website had to delete 10 messages from its Twitter account because it had used photos from the President’s Flickr account.
Focus Ecuador has also been subject to complaints over allegations of copyright infringement levied by the company Ares Right on behalf of the national government. The most recent incident was on May 6, this time the Secom and Alianza País, a movement affiliated with the current administration, both issued complaints against the organization for using images published on the President’s social media accounts.
The use of intellectual property laws with the goal of eliminating information and other content has previously been condemned by different national and international organizations, such as the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, in different annual reports.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) published an investigation in January titled “How U.S. copyright law is being used to take down Correa’s critics in Ecuador.” Only a few days ago, the CPJ reported that tweets with links to this investigation had also been deleted using copyright law.
The actions denounced in the letter were also the subject of a press conference in Ecuador. During the press conference, the media outlets asserted that they do not rule out bringing their cases before courts in the United States, where their servers are housed, so as to be able to identify those responsible for the cyber attacks.
Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.