Consortium offers 'lifeline' for at-risk journalists

by Jacqueline Strzemp
Oct 30, 2018 in Digital and Physical Safety

From Mexico to Belarus to Pakistan, journalists find themselves trying to stay physically and digitally safe amid violent protests and corrupt actors with a vested interest in suppressing in-depth investigations. Even the most cautious of journalists can find themselves dealing with threats or destroyed equipment because of their work.

Lifeline: The Embattled Civil Society Organization (CSO) Fund is a resource journalists can use to protect themselves. I spoke with Jerusha Burnham, who manages the Latin America portfolio, for more details.

IJNet: What is Lifeline?

Burnham: The Lifeline Embattled CSO Assistance Program is a fund that provides emergency assistance to human rights organizations at risk. Freedom House is the head of the consortium, and we have six other partners that work with us – Front Line Defenders, the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL), CIVICUS, the Swedish International Liberal Centre (SILC), Forum Asia, People in Need.

We respond to threats and attacks that civil society organizations receive which could be anything from legal persecution to death threats for staff. It’s varied and depends on each situation, but anything that threatens the life of the staff or the work of the organization is considered a threat.

We can provide legal assistance, trial monitoring, medical assistance; if someone was tortured or attacked, we would provide medical assistance for that. We cannot provide medical assistance if there’s an existing condition not related to the work of the defenders. We also provide relocation assistance, which could be anything from moving your office to a safer neighborhood, or moving staff to a different city or country. We provide humanitarian assistance and equipment replacement; if phones or computers were stolen or damaged, we can replace those. There are also grants for security, meaning buying security cameras and an alarm system for an office, or it could mean hiring private taxis so they don’t use public transportation.

I know a lot of journalists maybe would not consider themselves either a part of civil society or human rights defenders per se. What would you tell them?

We consider many journalists to be human rights defenders (freelancers and bloggers are also included). There is a fine line, in that journalists have to have a strong track record of work on issues pertaining to human rights or democracy issues for us to consider them for support. For example, if you are a sports editor, we probably would not be able to provide support, but anybody that’s worked on issues of violence, drug trafficking, corruption, human rights violations, politics or critiquing the government or state officials, etc. in relation to democracy or human rights issues can potentially receive support. Unfortunately in many countries, the media environment is so repressive that the mere act of published uncensored news can be a defiant human rights act. In Latin America, we’ve supported individual journalists, media houses and community radios, especially in indigenous communities, where community radios are really important.

For Lifeline, an organization is defined as two or more people working together for a period over six months. They don’t have to be officially registered to apply, so that also makes it easier for some organizations, but we can also support individual journalists.

What is the process to apply? What are some things people should keep in mind?

The first thing to keep in mind is the risk or threats of an attack against the person or an organization must have occurred in the last three months. We could probably go up to six months under special circumstances, but we cannot consider threats that occurred over a year ago, unless it is a continuous threat.

They have to be able to show us their human rights work, and threats against them have to be verifiable. We always ask them to provide independent references, so that we can vet the situation, but we also rely on our own networks to vet these cases.  

If possible, it’s important to know the type of support you’d like to request before applying; it’s better for us to process the cases faster, if they already have an idea of “this is what I need and this is how much it will cost.”

How long does it take for funding to be disbursed?

It usually takes about two weeks; it also depends on our caseload and our ability to confirm the facts of the case. If the situation is extremely urgent, we’ll try to do it faster. There are some cases that take a little longer, but in that case, we would discuss with them why it’s taking longer.

Do you have countries that you are prioritizing specifically?

Specifically for journalists we’ve done an incredible amount of cases in Eurasia, and I think that’s going to continue. In East Africa, after the Burundi crisis a year and a half ago, we supported a lot of journalists as well. In Latin America, we’ve worked with a lot of journalists from Mexico and Central America, especially Honduras. We accept applications from anywhere in Latin America and the Caribbean. They should all feel free to apply.

How can people apply?

They could email Lifeline directly (; for Latin America they can email and we can email them the application form. One of the things that we strive to do — and especially with journalists, because communications are often monitored — is to establish a secure way of communication. We have several tools to help them with that; most journalists know them, but we can use PGP, encrypted email or encrypted chat communication. Anything that will make it safe for them to submit the application or talk to us about their situation. If they don’t have access to these tools, then we’re also happy to walk them through a process on how to use them.

We are also in constant touch with other organizations that support journalists at risk, so if there was a reason that we couldn’t provide support, we could recommend their case to other organizations that work specifically with journalists.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via Ed Jeavons.