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Mexico's most vulnerable reporters lack digital security skills

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In September 2011, two Mexican bloggers who reported frequently on local crime, including drug trafficking and related gang activity, were tortured and hanged on a pedestrian bridge in Nuevo Laredo, a town near the U.S. border. The town is run by the Zetas, one of Mexico’s most active and dangerous criminal organizations. A note near the scene signed “Z” warned that other Internet users could meet the same fate.

Later that month, the body of a decapitated woman was found in the city with a message saying she was killed for her posts on the social media forum “Nuevo Laredo en Vivo.”

That these victims were journalists and bloggers working online signals the increasing vulnerability of digital journalists in Mexico. Despite this, most Mexican journalists and bloggers reporting on highly sensitive topics (such as crime, corruption, violence and human rights issues) do not fully understand the risks and threats they face when they use digital and mobile technology, even though the topics they cover make them even more vulnerable, a new survey by Freedom House and the International Center for Journalists finds.

ICFJ Knight International Journalism Fellow Jorge Luis Sierra prepared the 21-question survey, which was completed by 102 journalists and bloggers in 20 Mexican states, particularly those affected by drug violence and where journalists and bloggers have been under stress due to a wave of murders, kidnappings, physical attacks and death threats.

The report, "Digital and Mobile Security for Mexican Journalists and Bloggers," shows that nearly 70 percent have been threatened or have suffered attacks because of their work. In addition, 96 percent say they know of colleagues who have been attacked. Thirty percent of respondents, half of them working in Mexico City, said they have never been attacked, which signals that journalists and bloggers working in Mexico City are relatively safer than those working in other areas of Mexico. Even so, half of the 32 participants from Mexico City say they have been threatened or attacked.

When asked about digital risks, respondents to the survey named cyber-espionage and email-account hacking the most serious digital risks. While nearly all reported they have access to and rely on the Internet, social networks, mobile phones, and blogging platforms for their work, they also admitted to having a low level of skill in digital technologies. They also reported little or no command of digital security tools, such as encryption, use of virtual private networks (VPNs), anonymous Internet navigation, and secure file removal. One positive finding from the survey: More than 50 percent of participants say they can create secure passwords.

The report recommends urgent training to increase digital and mobile security, such as through consultations with media companies, more online and in-person training programs and a community of media-security experts comprised of engineers, journalists and bloggers to customize technology. Reporters, photographers and editors in dangerous zones should be able to learn about the need for secure communications tools online, it says.

Sierra will use the survey results to design an online course and in-person workshop to train participants to develop and use digital and mobile risk-reduction strategies and protocols.

Read the report in English and Spanish.

Photo courtesy of iStock Photo

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