Digital security: Is online safety deteriorating for journalists?


Earlier this month, a Voice Of America reporter and freelancer were detained by Chinese police while attempting to interview Sun Wenguang – an 84-year-old retired Chinese economics and physics professor who had previously spoken out against government policies. Sun had been conducting a live television interview with Voice Of America just two weeks earlier when police stormed his home and forced him off air. His reaction was caught live; he was recorded saying “I am entitled to freedom of speech”. Despite several attempts to contact Sun for days following, he was unreachable, his whereabouts unknown.


The journalists were taken to an undisclosed location, had their cell phones destroyed, and were separated from one another while interrogated. They were then driven separately to the outskirts of Jinan before being released – but not before both men had all their devices scanned and downloaded.


This incident is but one of hundreds of thousands of acts of aggression or intimidation directed toward journalists each and every year in China. It’s a bleak reality, and one that doesn’t affect only Chinese media professionals. Last year saw a record number of journalists killed in Mexico, Burmese reporters are being imprisoned every month, and journalists in Turkey are facing criminal charges for reporting on politics and acting in accordance to the Freedom of Speech Act. The situation is getting worse for journalists right around the world, at a time where one would expect it to be getting better given the growing reach of the internet and improving human rights recognition worldwide.


Meanwhile in the Americas, The Institute for War and Peace Reporting have developed a manual designed specifically for Cuban media professionals to support them when faced with the cyber-attacks they often encounter. The ‘Holistic Security Guide for Cuban Journalists’ deals with the detention, cyberattacks, blocking of websites and other freedom of speech violations that journalists reporting from within Cuba’s borders may face frequently. It delves into safe browser extensions for Chrome and Firefox, how to safely download and install programs, and how to safely use devices that share information, such as hard drives, PDF files and more, without their being compromised.


In Israel, even more caution must be practiced by journalists. The government operates under a ‘predictive policing’ policy, which attempts to identify potential Palestinian attackers by developing targets on social media who are then often interrogated, investigated and in some instances, even jailed. Citizens and journalists caught posting or publishing content that mildly resembles criticism of Israel and its occupation of the Gaza frequently face threats by authorities, with journalists often summoned by the Palestinian Preventive Security for posts they publish on social media platforms. 


In Pakistan, a Digital Rights Foundation’s report that explored the severity of digital threats faced by journalists today, documented their experiences of online insecurity, and identified the required protections from the journalists’ community and respective media organisations, found 78 percent of respondents had experienced some form of online threat or harassment; 92 percent thought that online harassment is very common; 45.5 percent of them thought that online insecurity resulted in them self-censoring themselves; and 56 percent thought that online insecurity was tied to their physical safety. 


In Africa the situation is even direr.


In Cameroon’s Anglophone regions, where government-enforced internet shutdowns are not a rare occurrence, a 230 day internet shutdown between January 2017 and March 2018 is reported to have been the longest ever enforced in the continent. Apparently, the government staged the shutdown to stifle dissent among the people and media, who were calling for secession from the North West and South West Anglophone regions. The shutdown impacted not only private citizens, but the media, professionals and government.


But Africa is climbing aboard the digital security bandwagon, with the West Africa ICT Action Network (WAICTNET) having just staged a two-day Digital Security workshop for female journalists in Liberia. The training, which was organized in collaboration with the Female Journalist Association (FEJA) saw female journalists learn about Device Security, Information security for investigative journalists as well as the fundamentals of Digital Security, in a bid to protect further female journalists from coming under cyber-attack while working in the field.


The point is, privacy tools for journalists do exist, and several cyber security tools suited to professional and citizen journalists in particular have emerged in recent years.


In the simplest form, journalists can do the following whenever using the internet, to ensure their browsing is unrestricted and unmonitored.


  • Never save passwords when signing into websites.
  • Clear computer Cookies regularly.
  • Always use ‘Incognito mode’ when using browsers.


Browser add-ons including AdBlock Plus, Ghostery and JonDoFox can enable journalists to keep online manipulations hidden and activities kept more or less under wraps from suspecting eyes,

while other digital tools for achieving online anonymity include The Onion Router – a special free-of-charge network of free nodes that allows users to run a connection through a set of volunteer servers before reaching a targeted website – and of course there are also trustworthy Virtual Private Networks (VPNs).


Mailfence, Protonmail and Countermail are examples of encrypted, protected email services that enable journalists to send protected, unlimited private emails, and the search engine DuckDuckGo is an untraceable, unmonitored search engine preferred by journalists working in difficult contexts. So, there are ways of ensuring activities are kept discreetly hidden from those in power, yet many journalists are failing to utilize these basic tools to keep them and their sources safe from digital attack.

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