The Committee to Protect Journalists just released its “Journalist Security Guide,” a 68-page manual for reporters that has tips on every sort of security, from digital to physical. To promote the publication, written mainly by CPJ’s Frank Smyth, CPJ and Columbia’s Journalism School held a panel discussion last week about security challenges facing today’s reporters.
Anne Garrels, a former foreign correspondent for NPR, said that earlier in her career, while covering the civil war in El Salvador, “we walked around with shirts that said ‘don’t shoot, I’m a journalist. And it actually worked to some degree,” she said. “Now, the mere thought of it makes me shudder.”
Pakistani journalist Ashmed Rashid echoed Garrels’s statement, saying that states and extremist groups have become much more hostile towards reporters. During previous military regimes, he said murder was a line that wasn’t usually crossed.
“The killing and kidnapping of journalists, torture, holding them to ransom, et cetera, has become the norm,” said Rashid.
While new safety challenges effect all journalists, freelancers are increasingly on the frontlines in conflict reporting. Operating without the backing of a news organization often means no health, disability, or life insurance. Carolyn Cole, a staff photographer for the Los Angeles Times, recalled a recent conversation she had with a journalist who was suffering PTSD from her time working in a conflict zone.
“She only had catastrophic insurance,” said Cole. “She can’t afford to take the time off, and she can’t afford to get the therapy she needs,” she said. “Not having someone that’s funding you, and not having a comprehensive insurance plan can be a real problem.” CPJ’s guide lists some organizations that offer insurance for reporters, such as the Society of Professional Journalists, though finding comprehensive coverage that will be honored overseas is still a difficult problem for most freelancers.
In addition to physical and emotional security, the panel discussed digital security issues. Every piece of data that passes through computer networks leaves a traceable trail. In countries with poor human rights records, suspicious online activity can mean death for reporters and sources.
Katrin Verclas, co-founder of MobileActive, a group that promotes the use of mobile technology for social change, says smartphones carry a goldmine of information. Texts, call logs, and email are all easily available.
Verclas further noted that smartphones are “a dictator’s or repressive regime’s wet dream as far as surveillance and tracking you is concerned,” since most phones now have GPS, and mobile networks log all actions.
Christopher Soghoian, an Open Society fellow and security expert, says security should be a priority in news outlets’ use of technology.
“Many news organizations have realized that the Internet is cool,” he said, “so they have social media team, and they have data-driven journalism team, and they have a visualization team, but not many of them seem to have security.” During the panel, he specifically recommended SpiderOak for backing up files. (For more specific technology recommendations, check out CJR’s coverage here and here, as well as more on Soghoian’s view on journalism’s security lapses.)
Other security tips came from former ABC national security reporter Matthew Cole, who recommended using cash cellphones to make it harder to track communications. And Danny O’Brien, CPJ’s Internet Advocacy Coordinator—he wrote the “Information Security” chapter in CPJ’s guide, which I recommend reading for an in-depth explainer on this issue—said, when in doubt, revert to pen and paper.
“There’s not going to be any malware with that,” he said.