Digital Safety and Practices
As journalism moves into the digital space,
it will continue to benefit from expanding access to information, audiences, and publishing tools that new technologies offer.
At the same time, there are new threats.
Journalism is generated, processed and disseminated through electronic means – particularly digital. In today’s global multimedia environment, journalism can be practiced in a multimillion-dollar newsroom
or from one’s bedroom.
Technological innovations have made it easier than ever to engage in news gathering and content dissemination.
Today, anyone producing journalism can face risks. Digital security and operational security concerns will increase in importance as lines increasingly blur between online and offline activity.
Wherever it takes place, journalism often involves enormous risk to those producing it and their sources, particularly where its output challenges power or brings to light information that other actors seek to conceal.
Those who practice journalism may attract attacks because of the important role they play, and it is because of this role that they also particularly merit protection. They need to be safe and free to provide opportunities for the expression of opinions and information, monitor and shed light on government and corporate operations, and encourage accountability.
The interconnectedness that the Internet and mobile technologies foster has enabled everyday citizens to participate in journalism by documenting local events or even researching and analyzing distant ones, and disseminating news and opinion.
All media actors on all platforms are entitled to enjoy the fundamental right of freedom of expression, and entitled to the safe exercise of this right.
Society has a particular stake in protecting those who produce journalism.
Established players now publishing online are complemented by new contributors who bring an increasingly significant contribution to public information and opinion.
In addition to these changes, much online journalism has become interactive, involving discussions online amongst consumers of journalistic content themselves, and between them and the producers, with the line between the two blurring in many cases.
When citizens bear witness or comment through digital means such as blogs, tweets or comments, questions arise about journalistic identity and status.
In situations where journalists at media houses have limited access to information or sources because of natural disasters, or humanitarian or political crises, citizen reporting is especially valuable because it provides
critical information to various members of the indigenous and international communities.
Rather than the era of an exclusive press, today news gathering and dissemination is often distributed across diverse actors and media platforms, including social media.
Who is a journalist?
The debate over who is and who is not a journalist is ongoing.
The primary question focuses on whether individuals who gather information and disseminate such content on their own are journalists.
Many define journalists not on platform or formal status, but by practice of journalism as the generation and circulation of newsworthy information and opinion.
The UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists, states that, ‘the protection of journalists should not be limited to those formally recognized as journalists, but should cover others, including community media workers and citizen journalists and others who may be using new media as a means of reaching their audiences.’
Therefore, digital safety is certainly relevant to all.
It is recognized that, irrespective of technology, not all media actors who produce or contribute in a ‘systematized’ way to journalism do so to the same extent as those individuals who engage in newsgathering activities as their
professional employment. Therefore, not all who do journalism or make a contribution to it are journalists.
Because almost every person connected to journalism today uses Internet
and telecommunications to one extent or another, even if their output is published or broadcast offline, digital safety is a matter of generic relevance.
Many bloggers and videographers who create and publish articles online are practicing journalism in their spare time in addition to other jobs, and are not necessarily compensated monetarily for their efforts.
In addition, there are other digital contributors who do not see themselves
as journalists, but who also contribute to journalism as witnesses, fact-checkers, commentators or reporters, and mostly by making use of digital technology.
‘The term ‘journalist’ means any natural or legal person who is regularly or professionally engaged in the collection and dissemination of information to the public via any means of mass communication.
The United Nations (UN) Human Rights Committee, defines journalism as a function shared by a wide range of actors, including professional full-time reporters and analysts, as well as bloggers and others who engage
in forms of self-publication in print, on the Internet or elsewhere.
Today, this view embraces many individuals who consider themselves journalists and yet are not employed in the traditional news media institutions.
Who is a journalist?
The Internet is a pathway for information sharing and a virtual meeting square.
Individuals can provide contrary information and views, debate key issues, and associate with each other, offering the opportunity for people to realize the right to freedom of expression and association.
News gathering and information dissemination can often overlap with social media, as well as blogs and mobile phone communications.
Sources of Information
Journalistic activities can be performed by both professional journalists and untrained citizens who nevertheless produce journalistic content.
These latter media actors serve as increasingly vital sources of information as new platforms and tools allow them to produce content in an unprecedented way, and to engage with the output of more traditional journalism on a range of different platforms.
As more actors take up the mantle of participating in journalism and contribute to informing public opinion, they also become subjects of interest to people and organizations wishing to control the flow of information.
As the number of online journalists has increased, so have attacks against them, such as illegal hacking of their accounts, monitoring of their online activities, arbitrary arrest and detention, and the blocking of websites that contain information critical of authorities.
The level of threats against the press increases every year as government
authorities – among other individuals– are looking more closely at the impact of
Besides receiving threats online, many are tracked down via mobile phone networks and threatened further via their phone lines.
It is becoming just as dangerous, if not more dangerous given the impact of online media, for journalists who work for online media outlets as it is for other mediums such as print, radio or tv.
The safety of journalists, has risen to prominence on the global stage in recent years, spearheaded by international press freedom organizations and UN bodies, promoting the protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
Journalists and other individuals doing journalism with digital technologies face a range of challenges and dangers, which sometimes contribute to the hostile environment they face in the physical world.
It is difficult to research the attacks and threats facing those doing journalism digitally, for a number of reasons, such as:
• Digital attacks are often difficult to identify
• Organizations and individual do not often know they have been victims
• It is difficult to pinpoint which entity or entities are carrying out attacks
However, dangers face not only those who publish online. They apply to all individuals whose journalistic activities interface with electronic technology, whether through their use of computers to process information, their utilization of telecoms or the Internet for news gathering and research, or simply their reliance on email for communications.
The threat faces all individuals, whose use of digital communications for journalism, may expose them to defined dangers.
While some news organizations may have resources at their disposal – including system administrators well versed in digital threats – many independent bloggers, freelancers, or citizen journalists often do not have this expertise or even access to such expert assistance or resources.
However, even with resources it can still be difficult to ascertain who the attackers are. The important task is to identify the kinds of threats and the appropriate protection for those who find themselves digitally endangered.
Organizations which seek to protect and extend the digital rights of users at risk around the world may not have data on journalists and other online users who have had rights to free expression and privacy violated in digital space.
Even when they do, they do not always have sufficient resources to analyze and make the data anonymous so it can be shared safely.
A variety of stakeholders, including commissions, news organizations, governmental and non-governmental organizations, technologists and journalists are becoming more aware of the digital dimensions of journalistic safety, and are taking steps to mitigate these.
Through a variety of commitments, initiatives, training courses, meetings and materials, areas of practice can be mapped according to the following categories:
• Awareness raising
• Digital security
• Safety assistance
• Reports and research
Reports and Research
Reports and research by press protection organizations, academic institutions, and international human rights organizations help to shed light on the types of attacks that journalists and activists face. In recent times, this research has included digital threats and attacks such as surveillance and targeted malware.
The challenge is to maintain and extend this kind of in-depth research into digital threats and attacks which are likely to increase with higher levels of Internet connectivity, the increase in data storage capabilities, and the inexpensive cost of disruptive technologies.
Many organizations provide safety assistance to journalists and have done so for many years. Much of this safety assistance has focused on physical protection measures, such as safety gear for journalists covering conflict areas, insurance, financial assistance for relocation and other provisions.
In more recent years, some organizations have worked with journalists and news organizations, as well as blogger's and others, within country contexts in order to provide digital security expertise and training. Others have acted as liaisons between journalists and trusted technologists, connecting them when there is a digital security need.
The field is awash in digital security guides, and in formats ranging from mobile apps, video, and animation through to plain text. While it is helpful to have new guides in the field, the proliferation and the sometimes contradictory advice can generate confusion.
As a whole, the guides are also limited in terms of the number of languages covered, and they can quickly become outdated.
Awareness raising is a way to sensitize all actors about comprehensive safety for journalism, and to promote the social norm that this special kind of public communication should enjoy security and protection, and not least in regard to its interface with digital technologies.
Promoting broad awareness is a common activity among the key stakeholders involved in promoting the protection and safety of journalism. Press freedom organizations send letters to high-level officials, calling on them to investigate crimes – including digital crimes – against journalists. Intergovernmental bodies work with their partners to ensure the safety of journalists remains a priority on the international agenda.
Digital security training programs for human rights defenders and journalists are increasing.
However, freelance journalists have a particularly low level of awareness on how to safely use satellite and mobile phones, file stories from the field, and successfully implement encryption.
Where it happens, digital security training faces challenges, including a lack of:
• Understanding, among donors and clients
• Permanance, as guidelines can become redundant
Individuals involved in journalism in a digital context face numerous and complex challenges, including technological, institutional, economic, political, legal and psychosocial. These are identified below:
• Digital security tools are not always user friendly
• Digital security tools may be too expensive for freelancers or bloggers
• Lack of publicly available data documenting the types of digital attacks
• Denial-of-Service attacks may result in financial loss for organizations
• Many journalists are not adept at the use of secure technologies
• Digital security is often taught ad-hoc
• Compromised user accounts and devices lead to increased insecurity