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Published on April 8th, 2016 | by EJC


Mitigating Risk, Digitally: Practices By Journalists Across The Globe

There is no question that being a journalist can be dangerous. Since 1990, the International Federation of Journalists lists 2297 media fatalities due to violence in journalism, with 24 killed so far in 2016. Moreover, 2015 was branded as the “fourth most deadly year on record for journalists” by the Committee to Project Journalists, whose research also revealed that only 2% of perpetrators are ever apprehended and persecuted.

And, the advent of the digital era has only increased the risks that journalists face – source protection, physical safety, information security, and much more, can all be jeopardised by inadequate online risk mitigation.

Recognising these risks, the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) at the National Endowment for Democracy has just released a report chronicling the methods taken by journalists to protect themselves online. Its findings are based off a survey of 154 journalists from North America, Latin America, Western and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Central and Southeast Asia, and Africa.

Whilst some results were worrying – for example, 60% of respondents did not regularly use digital tools to protect themselves and some respondents mentioned tools that are not designed for security – the survey also highlighted the myriad of opportunities that are available for protection. That is, provided that journalists are aware of them.

“North American and European journalists are more concerned with digital protections and more knowledgeable about technology, while those in Latin America, Africa, and Asia give more weight to physical security but are more vulnerable to digital attacks because they don’t know about the tools to counter the threat,” writes the report’s author Javier Garza Ramos, a former editorial director of El Siglo de Torreón in Mexico and specialist in freedom of expression issues.

“Fortunately, the results show that there are many user experiences of digital tools for security around the world, enough to get more journalists involved in using them and in contributing ways in which some of them can be improved.”

To find out more about the nexus between journalism and digital security, we spoke to Javier about the report’s results and its overarching digital protection messages for journalists.

EJC: What got you interested in digital security and how did this inform the way you approached the report?

Javier: During my tenure as editor of El Siglo de Torreón, a newspaper in northern Mexico, we suffered several attacks and threats from organized crime groups that were fighting in the city, which got to be one of the most violent in Mexico in 2010-2013. This made me dive into journalist protection and safety issues, especially physical. But after I left the newspaper in late 2013 I decided to focus more on digital security but also in the use of digital tools for journalist protection, so I took over a fellowship at ICFJ to provide training on digital security to Mexican journalists and to develop a crowdmap to track attacks against journalists in Mexico so we could develop better safety protocols.

The Periodistas en Riesgo (Journalists at Risk) map of Mexico

When IFCJ and CIMA began talking about collaboration on digital security issues we came up with the idea of first producing a report that would paint us a picture of the state of things around the world. The survey is really just a first step to get a diagnosis on the culture of using digital tools for security. The report can inform further actions such as training or app development, but first we had to get an idea of how acquainted journalists were with security measures. I have found that the process is slow and journalists gradually realized the importance of taking steps for safety.

You have specialised in freedom of expression issues, and naturally journalists working in environments with limited media freedom face greater risks. Can you outline these, and some of the actions that they can take to protect themselves?

There are actions at several levels: at the personal protection level (physical safety, individual plans for digital security, psychological security); at the institutional level (company policies, labor benefits, equipment and training); at the network level (peer-support groups, local networks of journalists that set up common protection plans or agree in ways to cover a story). There are also different levels of effort. In Mexico there is a poor culture of security at the institutional level (provided by media companies) so journalists have to compensate with peer networks and individual plans.

Shockingly, the survey noted that some respondents had been unknowingly using applications with weak security. Given the large number of applications on the market, how can journalists educate themselves on the most secure practices to suit their circumstances? And how can a journalist find out if they are doing enough?

There is a lot of literature that can guide journalists to the best tools. I don’t mean the best tools in themselves but the best tools for what a journalist needs. In responding to the survey many journalists pointed to manuals they often consult (from organizations such as CPJ, RSF, Article19 and such). So this means that journalists are connected to the literature, they just have to apply the recommendations. The first step is to think about needs: what are a journalist’s or a news organization’s main risks? And work on safety measures from there.

The report focussed on what security measures individual journalists took. What role do newsrooms have in educating their journalists on security procedures?

Protection at the institutional level is crucial. Sometimes individual safety measures don’t work if they are not shared with colleagues or sources. (For example, it’s no good for a journalist to have an encrypted chat if his colleagues don’t have it). Protection plans must have a collective dimension and newsrooms can facilitate the access to the tools and the training they require.

How do the security protections taken by freelancers differ from those working in larger organisations?

While freelancers are on their own, and because of that they are the most vulnerable, they can compensate the lack of institutional support with peer networks. Inside a networks, freelancers can share tips, tools and safety measures. They can also ask support from international organizations dedicated to the safety of journalists.

There is a clear disparity in the use of digital tools across different regions. What role does the digital divide have in perpetuating this difference?



The disparity is a reflection of the digital divide or the knowledge gap, because of different levels of access to technology, but not only for journalists but also for their aggressors. A journalist in, say, Africa might be unaware of encryption tools for communication. But at the same time he might not need them because the local government he covers does not have the resources to hack his e-mail or chat. In contrast, a reporter in the US or Europe, having followed the revelations of NSA eavesdropping, might have a greater need to protect his communications and have more access to these tools.

Can you expand on how different levels of internet penetration across regions or countries impact the need for journalists to protect themselves digitally?

Again, it’s a matter of the digital divide. The less access to the Internet, the less use of digital tools. But it’s also a matter of Internet culture, of journalists knowing about the groups and organizations around the world that are developing of promoting safety tools. This has less to do with Internet penetration and more with how well journalists are connected with their peers and with support networks especially at the international level. For me, the most surprising results of the survey is that the respondents are very well-connected journalists (the survey was distributed by orgs such as CPJ, ICFJ, Article19, WAN-IFRA, IAPA, which means among people interacting internationally). If these respondents scored pretty low in the use of digital tools, imagine how less connected journalists will respond.

For a full rundown on security practice by region, as well as an assessment on different types of digital security tools, you can read the full report here.

Image: Yuri Samoilov

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