Fernando Villavicencio knows all too well the risks confronting journalists who expose information that others want to suppress.
The Ecuadoran journalist – convicted of defaming President Rafael Correa under the country’s harsh communications law – has spent parts of the past few years in hiding rather than submit to prison.
He already has paid nearly $50,000 in fines. He faces current charges, and a pretrial detention order, for allegedly disseminating private emails of Correa and another official. He and his family have faced long separations, as well as threats of physical harm.
“The government cannot afford to let my voice be free,” he told VOA last month, speaking from an undisclosed location via a Skype audio connection.
Last week, the 52-year-old author and founder of the FOCUS Ecuador news website applied for political asylum in Lima, Peru, fearing he would not get a fair trial in the current case. His website was suspended last month.
“This is basically a political persecution,” his wife, Veronica Sárauz, told VOA in a phone interview this week. Villavicencio’s investigative reporting on government corruption “has cost him his liberty.”
The fact that Villavicencio is seeking asylum “is a clear reflection of Ecuador’s systematic persecution of critics,” Carlos Lauría, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ senior program coordinator for the Americas, said in a statement last week.
CPJ encouraged Peru to grant the pending request and urged “Ecuadoran authorities to drop all charges against Villavicencio immediately and allow him to return home without fear for his freedom to work as a journalist.”
Press freedom in Ecuador has been eroding, according to reports released this week by CPJ and another watchdog group, Reporters Without Borders. RWB scored Ecuador at 105 in declining order among 180 countries. Freedom House, a U.S. government-subsidized NGO that monitors human rights records, last year bluntly described Ecuador’s media environment as “not free.” Its new report is due out Friday.
Since Correa took office in 2007, Ecuador has experienced “practically a decade of incessant persecution of police, media, judicial and even economic,” Villavicencio told VOA.
Ecuadoran authorities did not respond to several VOA requests for comment on Villavicencio’s case.
Soon after Correa became president, the U.S.-educated economist and former Ecuadoran finance minister labeled much of his country’s foreign debt as “illegitimate.” The OPEC country defaulted on its loans in 2008, setting the stage for later financial dependence on – and oil deals with – China.
Correa also increased public spending, reducing poverty levels from 38 percent in 2006 to below 23 percent in 2014, according to the World Bank report. But, as the BBC noted in a profile, the socialist castigated independent media as his “greatest enemy” and an impediment to his reforms.
Villavicencio first tangled with Correa in 2010 while serving as an aide to an opposition legislator, CPJ explained in a 2014 profile. The president, detained at a police hospital during a police revolt, summoned army troops who killed at least five people. Villavicencio and the lawmaker demanded investigating Correa for “perpetrating crimes against humanity.”
No probe took place. But Correa filed a defamation suit that eventually yielded prison terms and fines for Correa, the lawmaker and a third man. Villavicencio was given 18 months and ordered to pay $47,000 USD.
His wife, Sárauz, told VOA she raised $10,000 of the amount through crowdsourcing, then borrowed the rest from friends. “We have a debt to finish,” she added.
Meanwhile, Villavicencio went on the run, hiding out with an Amazon tribe before shifting among a series of safe houses to elude authorities.
And he wrote. Villavicencio, who once worked for the national oil firm EP Petroecuador, used his insider knowledge to investigate corruption and environmental degradation linked to the industry. That was the focus of “Ecuador: Made in China,” a 2013 book.
In 2013, the country adopted a communications law that is one of the “most regressive that has been promulgated not only in Ecuador but in the Americas in the last decade,” Lauría told VOA.
As CPJ explained, Villavicencio then riled up authorities over an article he co-wrote criticizing the government’s legal wrangling with the U.S.-based oil company Chevron. The writers were accused of illegally obtaining and disseminating government officials’ personal emails.
Villavicencio traveled to Washington in 2014 to get a protective order from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Ecuador’s government said it would not recognize the measure.
The latest of Villavicencio’s nine books – “The Oil Holiday,” published in March – contends that intermediaries in Venezuela’s oil deals with China profit at the public’s expense. “Great wealth went to particular pockets,” Villavicencio told VOA.
His wife promotes the books, not just because of their content but also because royalties support the couple and their three children, ages 17, 12 and 5. But the publicity also has exacted a price.
“People have called our home and said if I don’t shut up, they would attack our youngest kids,” Sárauz said.
The family and Villavicencio’s other supporters had hoped that Ecuador’s April 2 presidential election might bring an end to what they call his “persecution.”
Conservative candidate Guillermo Lasso had said publicly that, if elected, he would let Villavicencio “live peacefully.” But socialist candidate Lenin Moreno – of Correa’s PAIS Alliance – edged out Lasso, claiming 51 percent of the runoff vote to Lasso’s nearly 49 percent. He’s scheduled to take office May 24.
Villavicencio, who had considered running for an assembly seat last fall, left Ecuador for Peru shortly after the election.
He sees Ecuador headed down the same dangerous path as Venezuela, telling VOA his homeland struggles with corruption, debt and a lack of government transparency. “Media have been closed, journalists have been persecuted. There is self-censorship of the media. … We have had to migrate to the internet to publish research,” he said.
This week, Ecuador’s government said it would fine seven news organizations for not reprinting an Argentine story that accused Lasso of tax evasion – a charge he denied. The government later backed off imposing fines.
Giselle Jacome contributed to this report.