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African journalists must do more to protect themselves online

African journalists must do more to protect themselves online

Catherine Gicheru | January 26, 2016

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), over the past two decades 780 journalists worldwide were murdered while reporting or investigating stories. Many used digital tools in their daily work, which exposed them to cyber threats as well.

This trend is reflected in a recent CPJ report indicating that 109 out of the 199 journalists jailed last year worked online. Article 19 has also increasingly documented attacks against journalists who work online.

In many African countries as elsewhere in the world, laws have been enacted to allow security agencies to intercept communications, track calls and monitor the online user activity of terrorist groups or criminal syndicates, or to combat online hate speech. The ubiquitous mobile phone with built-in geolocation software makes the user traceable anywhere and at all times. Merely making an appointment can expose both the journalist and his or her source to unwanted surveillance.

What is disconcerting is that while state actors and corporate entities have become more and more adept at using surveillance tools, many journalists have yet to learn how to protect themselves online. So, what needs to be done?

Train

Much of the security training for journalists in Africa has focused on physical protection measures. Over and above this, there is need to develop in-country expertise on digital security to train journalists, news organizations, bloggers, human rights activists and even citizen journalists.

Integrate

Journalism schools should make it compulsory for all students to learn basic digital skills such as creating and managing passwords, encrypting files and mails and circumventing digital surveillance. A dean of one of Kenya’s schools of journalism explained why this kind of training is not offered to journalism students in the country: “For many of the institutions, digital security is a fairly misunderstood notion,” he said. “Online security should be part of the larger package that socializes students in this cyber space world. They need to understand why security is important, or what they are securing.”

For women journalists who face similar threats and intimidation as their male colleagues because of their work, online safety is crucial as they are sometimes specifically targeted for harassment just because of their gender.

Engage

Journalists and technologists need more opportunities to work together to improve or adapt existing anti-surveillance tools for use in-country. Examples of such engagements may include a simple skills demo during regular Hacks/Hackers meet-ups or more elaborate and intense meetings such as one last year that brought members of the Ugandan tech community together to test five digital safety tools. The testing revealed gaps in four encryption tools.

Such engagements will encourage not only the development of small, easy-to-use tools and techniques, but will also encourage journalists to inculcate habits that protect themselves, their sources and their data. Many journalists tend to be lazy when faced with systems that are too complex or difficult to understand; they tend to ignore precautionary procedures when faced with urgent deadlines.

There are numerous sources online where journalists can learn how to be safe online. Here, here and here are some examples of tools you can use. The following also offer some guidance:

Catherine Gicheru is a veteran Kenyan journalist working with Code for Kenya. Learn more about her work as an ICFJ Knight Fellow here.

Image CC-licensed on Flickr via Anastasia Basano.

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