UNESCO releases report on digital threats to journalists

The new report offers guidelines, tips and resources for staying safe online. 


Image CC-licensed on Flickr via Adriana Castro.

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The release of this UNESCO publication couldn’t be timelier. Networks of spies, criminals and terrorists thrive in cyberspace, making the risk of being targeted greater than ever.

Journalists face online espionage; malware attacks on websites and computer systems and hacking of confidential information. Many become victims of cyberstalking and online intimidation.

“The level of threats against the press increases every year ... as government authorities – among other actors – are looking more closely at the impact of online media,” Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) East Africa representative Tom Rhodes warned in the report, Building Digital Safety for Journalism. CPJ has documented arrests, torture and murder of online journalists.

UNESCO’s detailed study examines cases worldwide and advises Internet users to “treat digital hygiene as a habit and a practice.”  

“Journalists, like many others, are either fatalistic or paranoid about digital threats. We hope this study builds knowledge that can empower [them] by enabling understanding and action,” said Guy Berger, director of UNESCO’s division of Freedom of Expression and Media Development.

Report co-author Jennifer Henrichsen serves as advisor and researcher on digital security and government surveillance for Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. She says some journalists and their news organizations “definitely could be doing more” to ensure the safety of iPhones, computers and other devices.

The section titled “Global Overview” is a good place to start. It contains definitions and analysis of common digital threats, including surveillance and mass surveillance, software and hardware exploits, phishing attacks, denial of service (DOS) attacks, compromised user accounts, disinformation and smear campaigns, confiscation of journalism product and data storage and mining. 

The study cites preventive measures, including digital security training guides and courses; hotlines and safety assistance, reports and research and organizations that actively promote online safety.

Among dozens of examples listed:

  • The Netherlands-based initiative, Freedom Online Coalition, runs a digital defenders project to protect freedom of expression by providing emergency support for bloggers, journalists and others who are attacked while promoting and protecting human rights and democracy.
  • The Institute for War and Peace Reporting launched the Arabic Online Academy, a platform for free courses on digital security. 
  • Former ICFJ Knight Fellow Jorge Luis Sierra created a manual for Spanish speaking journalists and bloggers that provides advice on creating risk-reduction plans and protocols for digital and mobile security. ICFJ and Freedom House published the manual.  

The publication also addresses “online sexual harassment, including sexist comments and violent threats” that comes in many different forms.

Laurie Penny, a columnist for The Independent newspaper in London, described the torment she faces: “Most mornings, when I go to check my email, Twitter and Facebook accounts, I have to sift through threats of violence, public speculations about my sexual preference ... You come to expect the vitriol, the insults, the death threats,” she said in the report. 

The chapter “Gender Perspective on Safety Issues” contains accounts of cyberstalking and threats of rape and other violence against female journalists and their families delivered anonymously online.

The report concludes with challenges and recommendations for media corporations, journalism trainers and media professionals in the field. UNESCO commissioned the research as part of their work with the United Nations Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity.

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