Journalists in Distress Disregard Digital Risks, Despite Their Many Concerns: OTF-supported Study

Mon, 2017-01-30 20:23

A community post written by Taryn Blanchard of CJFE. OTF supported Blanchard’s Journalists in Distress (JID) project which analyzed the digital security practices used by the JID network, a group of free expression organizations that operate emergency response programs to assist at-risk journalists and human rights defenders around the world. This article, an excerpt, first appeared in its entirety on the CJFE site here.

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.

Mobile phones are physically smaller than computers and they are most frequently carried on the person rather than stored at home or in an office. This means that relying on mobile phones to access the Internet and store data increases the opportunity for a journalist’s device to be stolen or lost in public spaces. The data also shows that journalists’ devices are more likely to be stolen in public spaces than from their private residences or offices.

The infrastructure of mobile phone networks is significantly different than the infrastructure of the Internet. This makes communication via mobile phone less secure because the provider has full access to all text and voice messages sent over its network. Risks to journalists’ privacy and the integrity of their data also increase because it is more difficult on mobile phones than on computers to secure address book information, photos, video clips and text files—and therefore the personal information of both the device’s owner and his/her friends, family and colleagues.

In addition, mobile phones are in fact designed to distribute information about their location in ways that computers are not. This is particularly important to recognize in the context of journalists in distress who are being persecuted by governments that have access to mobile network infrastructure:

“Mobile networks are private networks run by commercial entities, which can be under the monopoly control of the government. The commercial entity (or government) has practically unlimited access to the information and communications of customers, as well as the ability to intercept calls, text messages, and to monitor the location of each device (and therefore its user).” – Security in-a-box

In general, journalists in distress orient to and worry about their digital security quite a lot. A full 60 percent think about their digital security frequently or all the time, while an additional 32 percent think about it sometimes. This is comparable to the almost 90 percent who worry all the time or frequently that their Internet communications are being monitored.

READ ON: The full article, full of fantastic graphs and data visualization, can be accessed on the CJFE site here.