In March this year, I found myself in the midst of an interesting discussion.
I had been invited by the Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) to give the keynote speech at their 4th Pacific Media Summit, held in Palau. The theme was "Harnessing Opportunities for the Pacific Media in the Digital Age", and the organisers' objective was to create a space to acknowledge the 'seismic change' in the ways that news is received, consumed, shared and interpreted, to consider some of the issues confronting members, and to explore solutions to them.
In my speech, I stressed the importance of sensitizing the right people to the serious risks that lack of knowledge about digital security and digital freedom can present.
The conference included a "marketplace" – a space for one-on-one conversations – so I had the chance to talk with many journalists and activists in the region about digital security. They helped me realize that a gap indeed exists when it comes to understanding the current digital security fabric.
In times of political unrest and economic uncertainty, such a gap is especially problematic. The work of investigative activists and journalists becomes more important than ever, but also more dangerous than ever.
Globally, we have seen a dramatic decline in press freedoms, as political leaders and corporate interests seek to control media outlets, to control narratives. These disturbing trends were highlighted in the 2016 edition of the World Press Freedom Index, put out by Reporters Without Borders.
Dramatic cuts to public broadcasters, physical attacks and arrests of journalists and activists for “anti-state” activities – in reality work that exposes government corruption and collusion with private interests – are just some of the means at the disposal of government authorities and private sector interests.
Turkey, Poland, and in particular Latin American amongst other nations have witnessed not just fewer press freedoms in place, but more surveillance and privacy-weakening initiatives that curtail the important work of activists and journalists.
The lack of oversight in regards to government surveillance revealed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden shook many Western investigative journalists, who found that they had to strengthen their digital security in order to protect themselves, and their sources. More and more news outlets now list journalists' public PGP encryption keys alongside their biographies on Twitter, for example, and offer security hardened “dropboxes” for future whistleblowers.
In the Pacific, the media and activist landscape has evolved over the years to meet challenges that are particular to each nation, but there are recurring themes.
- According to a report by Radio NZ International, fear of retribution is a barrier to reporting human rights stories in the Pacific, especially in regards to corruption and gender-based violence.
- In April 2016, the Prime Minister of Tonga, Samuela ‘Akilisi Pohiva, ordered the suspension of a journalist for “asking hard questions".
- Commenting on Papua New Guinea, IFJ reported that “media freedom is guaranteed in the country's constitution, but journalists and media workers come under attack for 'negative' or 'critical' reporting."
As in Pakistan, digital awareness and advocacy that focus upon the needs and security concerns that target female and LGBT members of the media are in dire need.
What resonated through my conversations with journalists and human rights activists in the Pacific region was a worrying lack of awareness of tools for digital protection, in spite of the very real dangers that can arise from government and private sector surveillance and invasion of privacy.
It is only by acknowledging gaps in digital protection knowledge and proactively working towards fixing those gaps, that human rights defenders, journalists and activists will be able to more effectively work towards advocating for greater transparency and accountability from their governments, whilst ensuring that their privacy and digital safety are protected.
Addressing this gap – improving the digital security of journalists and activists – is a core part of the Digital Rights Foundation's work. Freedom House, the International Federation of Journalists, and even the United Nations all offer workshops, manuals or both to journalist groups, for specific regions as well as for universal geographical scenarios.
As pointed out in IFJ's 2015 report, Strengthening Media in the Pacific, digital storytelling is becoming a crucial aspect of journalism in the Pacific. Enhancing awareness of digital protection mechanisms, such as encryption and privacy software, can protect journalists in this regard.
Awareness of digital protection is also essential from a gender perspective. Gendered violence – online and offline – can discourage female journalists from sharing email addresses and other forms of contact information, necessary for following up stories with sources, publicly, as we have seen in Pakistan. As in Pakistan, digital awareness and advocacy that focus upon the needs and security concerns that target female and LGBT members of the media are in dire need.
The Pacific region is home to an active media that manages to work even under worsening conditions, hounded by governments and private sector interests that wish to censor and control the media in order to avoid exposure of corruption.
Because these parties will use whatever digital and technological means they have to gain the upper hand, it is essential that more journalists and activists in the region not only enhance their awareness of digital security techniques and tools, but also work towards and advocate for stronger protection mechanisms at home, for themselves, their colleagues and their sources, to remain one step ahead.
International, regional and local organizations can help address the knowledge gaps around digital security and freedoms, and should make it a point to include Pacific issues in conversations on internet governance and cyberspace.
The theme PINA chose for its summit this year shows that there is a strong regional interest in harnessing digital opportunities. Providing more chances to build knowledge of digital security in the region will better equip people to both harness the opportunities, and reduce the risks.