Colombian journalists face new challenges with digital attacks on the rise

by Jorge Luis Sierra
Oct 30, 2018 in Digital and Physical Safety

Colombia used to be the most dangerous country in the world for journalists, with dozens killed and threatened during four decades of armed conflict among government, rebel and paramilitary forces.

That seems to no longer be the case: cyber attacks are now considered the most important threat to Colombian journalists, who are fully entering the digital era. According to a recent study conducted by Consejo de Redacción, a nonprofit that promotes investigative journalism, there are around 750 online media organizations in Colombia. 

The Foundation for Freedom of Expression (FLIP) reported six major cyber attacks against online media outlets in 2014. It also reported 15 incidents of false social network accounts created to defame journalists. WhatsApp/text messages and emails accounts have come under attack.

Here are some examples of attacks:

  • The investigative weekly magazine Semana in February 2014 revealed that a secret governmental operation, called Operation Andromeda, was hiring young hackers to crack the passwords of journalists and activists to gain access to their online accounts for military intelligence officers. The Colombian Army conducted an investigation and dismissed 25 officers, but this did not allay concerns that similar attacks are on the rise.
  • Journalist Javier Osuna reported that on Aug. 22, 2014, unknown attackers broke into his Bogotá home and started a fire to destroy a desktop computer and a laptop with information gathered over 18 months of investigation. Osuna had interviewed victims of criminal bands formed by former paramilitary members in Cucuta, a city located in Santander, one of the states affected for decades of paramilitary violence.
  • On Sept. 2, 2014, Amalfi Rosales, an El Heraldo reporter who wrote about the links between government officials and paramilitary groups, survived an armed attack on her home in Barranquilla. She had received death threats via SMS messages sent to her husband’s mobile phone. After the armed attack, she fled her home.

With this information in mind, I visited Colombia and organized a set of risk assessment and training sessions with five online media organizations with the support of two major partners: the Consejo de Redacción and Connectas, a regional nonprofit partnering with ICFJ in the Initiative for Investigative Journalism in the Americas.

The journalists and media organizations I visited across Popayan, Villavicencio, Valledupar and Bogotá, the Colombian capital, include:

The first step was to use Salama, an application I developed, to conduct a risk assessment of individual journalists, online media organizations and media development organizations.

What I found is both encouraging and worrisome. The Colombian media organizations are now fully entering the digital era, but they are doing so without skills to command digital security tools.

The risk assessment showed that 80 percent of journalists had no skills in encryption methods and half the journalists had little or no skills in developing strong passwords to protect their online accounts. The following chart, developed using Salama, gives a more complete picture of the problem:

Most of the reporters I worked with in Colombia are young and digitally savvy. They learned new skills in digital security very quickly. Others are experienced investigative reporters creating new online media outlets.

As they continue to investigate new criminal organizations, fraud and corruption schemes at the local level, and watch over the paramilitary demobilization and the land restitution process in the country, full command of digital security tools is a must.

Jorge Luis Sierra is an award-winning Mexican investigative reporter and editor and an expert in digital security. Learn more about his work as an ICFJ Knight Fellow here

Main image CC-licensed via Flickr by nikcname.