LIMA, Peru (AP) -- Electronic documents published by an Ecuadorean state-run newspaper in a report alleging an opposition politician sought U.S. help to undermine President Rafael Correa's leftist government were stolen from her email, she and others affected allege.
The case appears to be the first of an Ecuadorean public figure's electronic privacy being violated for political ends. Press freedom activists called it another sign of eroding civil liberties in this Andean nation.
The victim, Martha Roldos, told The Associated Press she believes someone allied with or in the government is to blame. She said officials are worried about the investigative news agency she hopes to create and are engaging in "character assassination."
TV spots depicting Roldos as an enemy of the state began airing Monday night on a state-owned channel and an article last week in the government newspaper El Telegrafo presented evidence it claimed "exposed" Roldos' effort to get U.S. help for hurting Correa's administration.
Press advocate Cesar Ricaurte of the Fundamedios watchdog group said Tuesday that more serious than the email hacking "is that a government newspaper publishes this information with persecution in mind."
The author of one email cited by the paper, analyst Adam Isacson of the left-leaning Washington Office on Latin America, called the incident an alarming sign that Correa is "stooping" to dirty tricks.
"If indeed it is the government, this is sleazy and anti-democratic in the first order and plainly a violation of human rights," Isacson said.
An Isacson email quoted by El Telegrafo discussing Roldos' proposal was sent to Latin America advocacy coordinator David Holiday of the Open Society Foundation, which funds independent media in countries including Colombia and El Salvador. Isacson suggested he meet with Roldos and copied her in.
Also "exposed" by the newspaper was a document signed by an official of the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy, from which Roldos and her team, including investigative reporter Juan Carlos Calderon, are seeking a grant.
El Telegrafo claimed Roldos' news agency is a front for political activity. It called the endowment a front for CIA subversion of unfriendly regimes.
The bipartisan-run endowment, funded with U.S. taxpayer dollars, was created in 1983 during the Cold War and has undergone significant change since. Isacson noted that one recent endowment fellow is a Colombian journalist who has exposed abuses by that country's right.
The AP asked El Telegrafo's editor, Orlando Perez, how it obtained the electronic documents. He would not be specific but said his investigative unit did "its work without violating any ethical norms."
Roldos believes her email account with the Canada-based Hushmail service was broken into in a Dec. 2 "phishing" attack. She said she got an email telling her the account was blocked and she followed instructions by entering her password. She said her computer froze after the apparent attack.
Roldos said she didn't realize until El Telegrafo's report that her email account had been compromised. She said she has no doubt the account was violated because the newspaper also published documents that she exchanged with others only in electronic form while was traveling in the U.S. in June and July.
Two of her partners in the news agency with Hushmail accounts also got phishing emails, Roldos said.
Correa's generous social welfare programs have won him 70 percent approval ratings among Ecuadoreans, but he has long been known as thin-skinned, and opposition activists and international human rights groups say his intolerance of dissent appears to be worsening.
Last month, his administration dissolved by decree the environmental group Pachamama, which was fighting oil drilling in Ecuador's Amazon on behalf of indigenous peoples.
It has squeezed independent media by withholding advertising and last June it created two media regulatory bodies packed with Correa loyalists that have the power to levy fines on media deemed guilty of slander or discrimination.
Associated Press writer Gonzalo Solano in Quito, Ecuador, contributed to this report.
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.