BY: Follow @lachlan
A member of the Ecuadorian government’s media regulation body attacked the Washington Free Beacon on Wednesday, claiming a recent article about an environmental lawsuit in the country lied about the issues at hand.
A deeper look at the official’s work reveals a role not just in media regulations that international observers have condemned as censorious and corrupt, but also in a campaign of social media harassment and allegations that he improperly used his position for political purposes.
Roberto Wohlgemuth represents autonomous local governments on Ecuador’s Council for the Regulation and Development of Information and Communication (CORDICOM). The body serves as the primary overseer and regulator of Ecuadorian media.
International press freedom advocates have criticized CORDICOM as a tool for the administration of President Rafael Correa “to impose arbitrary sanctions and censor the press,” in the words of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Wohlgemuth maintains an active Twitter presence. He lashed out at the Free Beacon on Wednesday for a report published the day before on Chevron prevailing in its legal dispute with environmentalists seeking billions for ecological damage in Ecuador.
“Your article is evidence of the corruption of servile press and judges serving corporations,” Wohlgemuth wrote. “Without lying, you have no business.”
He did not point out any factual inaccuracies in the story.
Correa himself has also attacked the Free Beacon on Twitter with similar allegations of corruption and corporate capture. Like Wohlgemuth, he was light on the details, declining to specify what, if anything, was incorrect or misleading in the coverage.
Wohlgemuth previously worked in the Correa administration, and continues to coordinate with the president’s political efforts in meetings that some have speculated could run afoul of Ecuadorian regulations on the conduct of government regulators.
While quick to allege corruption, Wohlgemuth himself has faced allegations that he illegally used his position to advance Correa’s political prospects.
Wohlgemuth was one of a handful of government and political officials to meet with Correa in a closed-door, off-the-books strategy session to coordinate advocacy on behalf of Alianza PAIS, Correa’s socialist political party.
Ecuadorian law prohibits CORDICOM members from "engaging in political campaigning in the exercise of their functions." Wohlgemuth denied any wrongdoing, saying he had taken the day off and attended the meeting in a personal capacity.
However, critics note that Wohlgemuth is very close with Correa. Some say he serves the president’s interests on the ostensibly politically neutral CORDICOM.
Diego Cornejo, director of the Ecuadorian Association of Newspaper Publishers, called Wohlgemuth “an official of the government propaganda apparatus” after he was appointed to CORDICOM last year.
The appointment, Cornejo said, “reinforces the trend by the executive of having a regulatory board at its service, a repressive and disciplinary body."
Press freedom advocates have criticized CORDICOM and the law that authorized its creation. Freedom House and the Inter American Press Association have joined CPJ in speaking out against its potential for abuse.
Prior to his stint at CORDICOM, Wohlgemuth worked in the Correa administration’s National Communications Secretariat (SECOM). His boss in that position was communications secretary Fernando Alvarado Espinel, a self-described “militant of the citizens’ revolution.”
Alvarado filed a copyright complaint with Twitter and two third-party photo sites in February alleging intellectual property infringement after a photo he posted publicly on Twitter showed up elsewhere on the Internet.
He made the complaints by way of the Spanish anti-piracy firm Ares Rights. That firm has worked closely with the government to censor communications critical, directly or indirectly, of the Correa regime, including communications by Chevron regarding its ongoing litigation.
Online document publishing site Scribd removed a number of documents posted by BuzzFeed last year detailing the Ecuadorian government’s acquisition of espionage equipment—an embarrassing story for a government highly critical of American espionage practices.
It was just the latest in a trend of Ares Rights complaints aimed at removing online content critical of, or embarrassing for, the Correa administration.
Ares Rights also targeted documents detailing work by a firm called Illuminati Lab to create a social media monitoring center during Correa’s reelection campaign in 2012 and 2013, and an Illuminati online public relations plan targeting Chevron.
While Wohlgemuth was not implicated in that effort, he appears to have been involved in efforts to use social media to attack critics of Correa and Alvarado.
An extensive investigation by Fernando Balda, an Ecuadorian blogger who fled the country in 2010 after being convicted of “acting against state security,” revealed that Wohlgemuth, in his position at SECOM, coordinated a group of Twitter “trolls” that would vehemently attack people who shared information critical of the Correa administration.
The trolls reported to Wohlgemuth, internal communications posted on Balda’s site revealed.
He identified at least 10 Twitter accounts associated with the effort, which he said was an attempt “to slander opponents … because approval [of the government] has declined considerably and [it] tries to maintain the perception that it still enjoys the popularity it had at one time.”
Wohlgemuth called Balda’s claims “slanderous accusations without merit, lies to discredit.”