There has never been a more dangerous time to be a journalist. According to Reporters Without Borders in 2021, at least 35 professional journalists have been murdered and 349 imprisoned worldwide, and the Committee To Protect Journalists states that in more than 80 percent of cases, the killers of journalists are still getting away with murder.
Governments and international lawmakers must act now to better protect journalists all over the world. However, for many journalists, protecting themselves against threats and abuses for reporting the truth and holding power to account is, unfortunately, a day to day necessity.
On the International Day to End Impunity Against Journalists, we spoke to journalists and experts across the industry to share their advice for staying safe when carrying out your reporting.
1. Don’t underestimate the importance of strong passwords and message encryption
“It might get annoying hearing your local IT person telling you to have a good password, but password phishing is one of the number one attacks.”
Sam Cutler is a technologist and reporter working with The Guardian on groundbreaking investigations like the Pegasus Project. In his opinion, one of the key things that journalists should protect themselves from is phishing and password-based attacks.
“People often assume that phishing-based attacks are just used by a lower level of criminal, but nation-states often use phishing campaigns to get journalists’ credentials as well. So my number one piece of advice is to use end-to-end encrypted applications – like disappearing messages on Signal, which are very useful – and then have good, strong passwords and password managers to make sure they’re easy to use.”
2. Report all online abuse and threats
Rebecca Vincent, Director of International Campaigns and UK Bureau Director at Reporters Without Borders, advises taking some practical steps to ensure you feel safe online and on social media.
“We can all take steps to get to the point where we feel more comfortable being online. Turn on your filters, report all threats, block and mute, there is no shame in doing any of that. It’s practically necessary. Especially if you’re a woman in the public eye, you can often end up really needing that or it becomes completely unusable. Report everything, because you never know what might turn out to be serious.”
3. Seek specialist advice and legal representation
“If you become involved in an incident, it’s important to get legal representation and media lawyers who have a strong record of defending press freedom cases.”
Drew Ambrose is a multi-award-winning senior producer and foreign correspondent for Al Jazeera 101 East. Last year, he was expelled from Malaysia after the police launched a criminal investigation, arrested a whistleblower and raided Al Jazeera’s Kuala Lumpur bureau for a documentary he produced on the plight of migrant workers during the coronavirus pandemic lockdown.
“Behind the scenes, we had incredible support from Human Rights Watch and other reputable NGO’s who made public statements against the crackdown on our journalism. Having the support of such international organisations who validate the reporting is important. Our team is also extremely grateful to Al Jazeera’s publicity team who asserted the facts in short sharp tweets. A strong public affairs team is an important dimension to any crisis.”
4. Talk to someone who understands the local security situation
If you are reporting on a story outside of your own country, Sam Cutler advises taking extra precautions to ensure you fully understand any risk you are undertaking.
“You can produce a threat model, which is the process of thinking about and of understanding what risks you face, what capabilities your adversary has and what they are likely to do. Then with that, you can seek more specific advice.
“So when you are reporting out of a country that is under greater risk, try to find someone who really understands the country and the political situation. See if they can help you, or if they know someone who can help give you specific security advice for that particular situation.”
5. Know your work back to front
Finally, it is crucial that you thoroughly fact check and research every piece of reporting so that you can defend it if you need to says, Drew Ambrose.
“I would strongly recommend going through your work line by line and writing out clear defences to every aspect of your story. This made me more confident when going into the four-hour police interrogation.
“There was not one editorial decision or piece of information that I put in the documentary that I was unable to defend, substantiate or justify. Knowing my work back to front gave me incredible confidence and calmness in what was a pressure cooker situation.”