What Happens to Leakers in Ecuador?

With the political asylum request by Edward Snowden to Ecuador—which hasn’t been approved yet—and Julian Assange’s one-year ordeal in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, there is a lot of self-righteousness coming from the administration of Rafael Correa and its sympathizers about that country being a safe heaven for leakers and transparency types.

In truth, Ecuador is one of the least friendly countries in Latin America in terms of freedom of the press. Just recently the country’s National Assembly approved a law (the so-called “gag law”) that tightens controls on the media, severely limits private ownership of frequencies, and bans the repeated public criticism of authorities individuals. The Inter-American Press Association has called the law “the most serious setback for freedom of the press and of expression in the recent history of Latin America.”

But another, less reported story is Correa’s war against leakers in his own government. Since he came to power in 2007 there have been four well-documented cases where the Ecuadorean government either prosecuted or arrested people who leaked information to the media, revealing alleged instances of corruption in Correa’s government:

Quinto Pazmiño: A former aide to then-finance minister Ricardo Patiño (now the foreign relations minister), Pazmiño leaked videos of a meeting held in Quito in 2007 with representatives of the New York-based firm Abadi & Co. in which Patiño allegedly planned to create uncertainty in the bond market so both sides could speculate and reap financial benefits. Pazmiño claimed to have more incriminating videos of other high-ranking officials in the government. Correa immediately reacted by changing the bylaws of the Radio and Television Law to establish sanctions—including canceling the broadcasting license—for disseminating “clandestine videos or audio recordings.” No videos were broadcast afterwards. Then, the attorney general ordered the arrest of Pazmiño, alleging that his detention was required for the safety of the president. He spent almost a month in jail. Then the president himself sued Pazmiño for libel. A few years later Pazmiño died of a heart-attack in his home. His widow was then killed by hit men in 2011 under mysterious circumstances, supposedly related to past debts.

Juan Carlos Calderón and Christian Zurita: Journalists Calderón and Zurita were investigating Ecuadorean state contracts awarded to President Correa’s brother. The journalists began publishing bits and pieces of their investigation at Diario Expreso. (This type of continued reporting on the same story is now illegal under the new media law, which penalizes “media lynching.”) Calderón and Zurita published a book with their entire investigation and an interview of the president’s brother, Fabricio Correa. In the interview, the elder Correa claimed that his brother knew about his contracts with the state. President Correa sued the authors for “moral harm,” asking for $10 million in restitution. On February of 2012 the court ruled for the plaintiff and ordered the journalists to pay $1 million to the supposedly morally injured president. President Correa later decided to “forgive but not forget” what Calderón and Zurita had done.

Diego Vallejo: A former aide at the Ministry of Justice, Vallejo revealed in December 2011 that the current minister of the interior, José Serrano, was illegally investigating the bank accounts of former attorney general Washington Pesántez. Vallego claimed to have privileged information about more irregularities. He was charged with illicit gun ownership and is currently in jail.

Fernando Balda: A former aide to the Sociedad Patriótica party, Balda revealed a recording in 2009 where Correa and members of the Constitutional Convention are heard talking about illegally modifying the draft of the constitution that was yet to be voted on at the Convention. Balda also claimed that the government had an “espionage” center to spy on political opponents and critical journalists. The government immediately sued Balda for “espionage” and for “threatening to disturb public order.”  Balda fled to neighboring Colombia. While in Colombia, Balda suffered two failed kidnapping attempts for which he blamed Ecuadorean intelligence services. He was deported back to Ecuador in October of 2012 after being sentenced in absentia to one year in prison. He’s currently in jail.  

Rafael Correa’s efforts to portray his administration as a sanctuary for leakers are cynical. It is ironic that Snowden has chosen to seek asylum in a country that is far from being a friend of individual liberties. His choice should not distract us from the severity of the abuses going on in Ecuador—or the United States.