WASHINGTON — An Ecuadorian journalist whose home was raided by authorities and who has been sentenced to two years in prison after being convicted of libeling the president has come to the United States to consult with rights groups and possibly seek asylum.
Fernando Villavicencio is a longtime Ecuadorian opposition activist and investigative journalist, most recently for the independent website Plan V. In December, police raided his home, taking computers full of documents Villavicencio was using in his reporting on corruption in Ecuador's oil industry. And he has been sentenced to two years in prison on a separate charge.
"I'm analyzing the situation and I'm not going to prison," Villlavicencio said. "Being a journalist is not a crime. Being different from them is not a crime. Fighting against corruption is not a crime."
This week he was sentenced to two years in prison for a 2011 case in which President Rafael Correa sued Villavicencio and a national assemblyman, Clever Jimenez, for libel. The pair asked the assembly to open an investigation on Correa's portrayal of the the large-scale police protests in 2010 as a coup attempt. He is also being ordered to pay nearly $200,000 in fines and apologize to the president, he said.
Villavicencio said in an interview at the BuzzFeed office in Washington on Friday that he does not plan to go to prison and is considering asking for political asylum.
He said that if the sentence is "executed," he will not be returning to Ecuador. Correa has pardoned those he accused of libel before, including the newspaper El Universo. Meanwhile, steps are being taken to arrange for his wife and children to come to the United States.
In Washington and New York, Villavicencio has met with a number of human rights organizations including Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, Human Rights Foundation, and the Committee to Protect Journalists, to seek their support in his situation.
He described in detail the raid on his house in December which took place in front of his wife and children, saying that over 20 police officers and people from the prosecutors' office had entered with guns had entered his house and taken his computers and flash drives.
Villavicencio and his allies have argued that the raid is an example of a breakdown in judicial independence because the raid was not precipitated by a legal order but instead an "urgent action" document issued by Correa's general counsel Alexis Mera, which was provided to BuzzFeed:
Villavicencio was accused of hacking into government email accounts, an issue that has become a flash point between the government and opposition activists as both sides have accused the other of hacking into their emails. A state-run newspaper, El Telegrafo, recently ran emails from opposition political figure Martha Roldos which showed her corresponding with people from the U.S. government-funded National Endowment for Democracy as well as two NGOs to try and secure funding for an independent news venture.
Villavicencio called the Ecuadorian government's housing of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has been living in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for a year and a half, a "double standard." He described a dire situation for journalists in Ecuador, where a broad communications law passed last year has restricted free speech by criminalizing "media lynching," or harming the reputation of public figures without sufficient evidence.
"Due to this new communications law there is almost no investigative journalism in Ecuador and no one in the national assembly is doing these kind of investigations," Villavicencio said. He said that journalists must communicate with their sources via a clandestine "black market" of closed envelopes, flash drives, and CDs.
BuzzFeed reported last year that Ecuador, despite its housing of Assange and onetime offer of asylum to Edward Snowden, had bought spy equipment designed for domestic surveillance and kept close tabs on journalists and opposition politicians.