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Even in distress, journalists disregard digital risks

Toshiyuki IMAI via Flickr CC

This piece was originally published on on 23 January 2017.

By Taryn Blanchard

Journalists have a lot to worry about when they find themselves the target of state and non-state actors, including loss of livelihood, dangers facing their friends and families, threat of assault, spurious prosecution and imprisonment, as well as disappearance or murder. When journalists are compelled to contact emergency assistance programs that are operated by international human rights organizations, in an overwhelming majority of cases they are asking for help to reestablish their physical safety. This can mean relocation, funds for lodging and food, or medical expenses and legal fees.

In the face of these many traumatic circumstances, it would hardly be surprising if journalists in distress did not prioritize their digital security as much as other concerns.

This is precisely what CJFE has found in a study of the digital security of journalists who have received assistance grants through our Journalists in Distress program. The study assesses the digital practices and vulnerabilities of at-risk journalists—ranging from their access to the Internet and use of cyber devices, their use of the Internet at cafés and libraries, their concerns and orientations to their own digital security, and their practices when communicating with emergency assistance programs.

The digital vulnerabilities to journalists in distress revealed in this study are numerous. In some instances they are worrying for what they indicate about the journalists and their situations, whereas in other instances they are related more to the vulnerabilities inherent in digital technologies rather than to anything over which users have direct control.

Download the full list of digital practices employed by journalists in distress during their work, personal lives and search for assistance. Together, they reveal a number of vulnerabilities to which journalists in distress can be exposed in cyberspace—but they also suggest some strengths and indicate their particular concerns and reasons for behaviours that put them at risk.

Specifically, they show that in certain contexts journalists in distress are often not able or willing to fully mitigate those risks. Given that all the journalists surveyed think it is possible to improve their digital security, this inability or unwillingness is not attributable to negligence or indifference but instead to a host of other factors, such as financial constraints and concerns about family and friends.

The importance of communication for journalists in distress cannot be understated. When they are being persecuted by extremely powerful actors and fear for their lives on a daily basis, a crucial tool that can help combat that sense of suffocating isolation, not to mention provide avenues for assistance, is open lines of communication. More than telephone or mail, the Internet is—not surprisingly—the main mode of communication that journalists in distress use to connect with their friends, families, colleagues and professional contacts, as well as with foreign human rights organizations that may be in a position to help improve their situations.

More than three quarters of the journalists surveyed use the Internet each and every day. But by communicating over the Internet, journalists in distress can put themselves at greater risk of being tracked, monitored, harassed and intimidated by state actors and their allies, as well as by other powerful non-state actors that can gain access to journalists through their online lives and activities.

Journalists in distress access the Internet via their mobile phones more often than computers. Unfortunately, mobile phones today come with so many functions and features that they are subject to the insecurities of mobile networks, the Internet and computers alike.

Read the Executive Summary of CJFE's report, or download the full report

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