Press freedom threatened by digital attacks [World Press Freedom Day]

by Jorge Luis Sierra
Oct 30, 2018 in Digital Journalism

A recent cyberattack against a news website in Panama, on the eve of World Press Freedom Day, shows how journalists and bloggers who try to reveal corruption, electoral rigging and inefficient public policies become the target of digital warfare.

This warfare can include cyberespionage, creation of fake accounts on social media, launching of defamation campaigns via Twitter or Facebook, as well as massive attacks such as Distributed Denial of Service Attacks (DDoS) or defacements. Most journalists, bloggers and media organizations rely heavily on the Internet, but lack the skills to prevent or face those attacks.

A major attack against the website of TVN2, a major television company in Panama, sheds light on the vulnerability of media organizations that seek citizen engagement to fight for clean elections and the rule of law. In the week leading up to the May 4 national elections in Panama, after the news organization launched Yo Informo, a crowdsourcing project to track electoral fraud, community issues and broken promises from candidates, a digital attack shut down the entire website of TVN2. (The Yo Informo platform was built as a part of the Initiative for Investigative Journalism in the Americas, a flagship program of the International Center for Journalists.)

The attack in Panama, probably a DDoS attack, affected the entire TVN2 website, except for Yo Informo, which apparently has better built-in security features.

“It seems to be a modus operandi of people attacking the media,” said Sandra Crucianelli, an investigative journalist who as a former ICFJ Knight International Journalism Fellow developed a data journalism team at La Nación of Argentina. Crucianelli is a consultant on the Yo Informo project. Her own hyperlocal news site Sololocal was itself a target of a cyberattack in 2013 during the general election in Argentina.

The news media as a community need to learn from the Panama experience and accept that we need to protect all news websites involving citizen engagement, transparency and accountability from digital attacks.

TVN2 and Sololocal are just two examples of a global trend. Media organizations around the world are experiencing major cyberattacks that put at risk their entire online infrastructure. "Twenty-one of the world’s top-25 news organizations have been the target of likely state-sponsored hacking attacks," according to Google research reported by Reuters.

To see the dimension of the trend of digital attacks in the world, Google Ideas and Arbor Networks developed a map to provide a visualization of the DDoS attacks as they are happening every day.

ICFJ Knight Fellow Miguel Paz, creator of Poderopedia, the digital platform that tracks who is who in the world of politics and business says, “all Fellows should consider these issues.” He refers to the ICFJ Knight International Journalism Fellows, who work across Africa and Latin America developing digital tools, spurring innovation in newsrooms and engaging citizens. He is right: Innovation must go hand in hand with security these days.

Paz is launching new chapters of his award-winning platform Poderopedia in Venezuela and Colombia, countries where cyberattacks have been a common practice against journalists and bloggers. Over the last two years in Venezuela, journalists were the target of 27 cyberattacks, five attacks on websites and four penetrations of personal accounts, according to Periodistas en Riesgo Venezuela, a crowdsourcing map launched recently by ICFJ and the Inter American Press Association.

While journalists, bloggers, Knight Fellows and media organizations are at risk, they now have some tools available to help them. Here are some lights at the end of the tunnel:


  • Google’s Project Shield is now offering protection against DDoS attacks to all websites using the Google infrastructure without having to move their hosting location.



  • provides protection against DDoS attacks for independent journalists through the Deflect platform, a global network of servers designed to soak up the tidal waves of DDoS requests.



  • Qurium is a media and human rights tech foundation that provides secure hosting and cyberattack mitigation.


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

Image CC-licensed on Flickr via Scott Hart.