Building digital security for journalists

16 Nov 2020 09:30h - 11:00h

Event report

This session was organised by Reporters without Borders (RSF) primarily to discuss how journalists can protect themselves from various digital threats and human rights abuses on the Internet.

Journalists under threat

Ms Helena Bertho Dias (Cofounder and Editorial Director, AzMina Magazine, Brazil), who works for AzMIna, a feminist magazine, stated that last year after publishing an online article on abortion, a minister in Brazil tweeted against it and their publisher received warnings to remove it. When the publisher did not pay heed, the website was removed. She emphasised that such threats were common for women journalists in Brazil, who are often harassed by exposure of their personal information online, and who frequently receive threats against their families, or other warnings, thus creating fear. “How can we as women journalists and journalists keep doing our job if we are constantly threatened?” questioned Dias.

In 2020, protests in Hong Kong went beyond physical protests to resistance on the Internet. Multiple protest channels sprung up. But the National Security Law imposed by the Chinese government on Hong Kong endangered many of these online protests, which also included sharing of protest materials. Due to heightened surveillance on digital mediums, it was difficult for journalists to connect with their sources, said Mr Chi Hang Chan (Independent journalist, Hong-Kong).

The legal battle

Digital media have added to freedom in countries where little media freedom is found. Yet, very little has been done to protect human rights on social media. While big tech companies and governments can self regulate to some degree, civil society and public pressure are not adequate to enhance their accountability. Ms Lisa Dittmer (Advocacy Officer for Internet Freedom, RSF Germany) called for greater transparency in lawmaking and for better policy concerning content regulation.

The Brazilian government is developing a fake news law to address misinformation and journalists’ safety, but it is a double-edged sword and the law is borderline, effectively stifling freedom of expression, noted Dias.

Ms Jensen Gyde (German MP, Head of the Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights and Humanitarian Aid), said that in her perspective journalists should not be expected to reveal their sources. She added that countries like Germany should set a precedent for the world with effective laws to protect journalists.

In Hong Kong, anxiety regarding what will happen to the Internet ecosystem is increasing. For now, big tech companies have resisted and said they will not take any blocking requests from the Hong Kong government.

A private Internet

Nothing on the Internet is really private unless it is end-to-end encrypted. This is backed by mathematical logic. Mr Andy Yen (Founder and CEO, Proton Technologies AG) said the use of end-to-end encryption in various tools and services needs to grow to protect Internet users. Education is another important task. Journalists and all other users of the Internet need to know their rights, how privacy is compromised, and how to protect themselves.

Privacy and security are two sides of the same coin. Anything that is private is secure, so both of these need development at the same time and not in isolation. In this context, ‘the right to encryption’ not merely in the analog world, but also the digital world, is currently debated in the German parliament, said Gyde.

But the significant question to ask is how does one protect journalists from big tech who control so much of what is happening on the Internet?