Media development organizations need comprehensive digital security plans to keep safe journalists and human rights defenders, who are increasingly the target of digital surveillance.
"Online surveillance is exploding, and people are increasingly facing threats or being detained because of their online activities." This gloomy assessment made by DW Akademie in 2016 is even more of a reality today. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the number of journalists jailed for online activities now exceeds the number of journalists imprisoned for reporting for traditional media.
The heady days when the Internet was trumpeted as an instrument of liberation are long gone – the Internet dream of freedom swept away when countries such as Malaysia, Iran and Saudi Arabia started persecuting bloggers about ten years ago.
Today it's clear that the Internet is a double-edge sword – it has incredible capabilities for promoting freedom of expression and access to information, but it's also a perfect tool for oppression. As a result, it's presenting media development with major challenges.
The deadly job of online journalism
CPJ, for example, says that online is now one of the ten most dangerous places for journalists to work, on par with countries like Egypt or Syria.
This is partly because authoritarian governments, intelligence agencies and criminal organizations are now able to use the Internet more 'professionally' than ever before. Not only do they have a huge digital arsenal at their disposal, ranging from surveillance software (spyware) to social network data, but their targets (e.g., journalists, human rights defenders) often know little about digital security, leaving them vulnerable to attack.
How can media development help advance digital communication and at the same time avoid or limit disadvantages?
The Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA), a US-based nonprofit organization, recently conducted a global survey of more than 150 journalists. It found that 60 percent of respondents were not taking precautions to protect their digital security or were not using, or even aware of, appropriate digital tools.
This situation becomes even more alarming when you consider that digital and physical security have become interlinked. According to UNESCO's Building Digital Safety for Journalism survey, from 2011-2013 the UNESCO Director General condemned the killings of 276 journalists – 37 of whom journalists working primarily for online outlets.
Even as these digital dangers proliferate, media development organizations are focusing more than ever on training journalists in digital journalism and supporting the development of online information platforms. After all, in our rapidly digitizing world they have little alternative or risk failing the general public who are increasingly – and at times, exclusively – seeking information online.
According to ITU, the United Nations' specialized agency for information and communication technologies, some 3.5 billion people worldwide used the Internet in 2016, and seven billion (95 percent of the world's population) lived in areas with mobile coverage.
Taken together, these issues raise the question: how can media development help advance digital communication and at the same time avoid or limit disadvantages?
The answer might seem obvious: for digital security to become a core component of media development.
Staying secure in a digital world is not that easy
Although good media development projects do take individual contexts into account, major hurdles often remain, ranging from repressive legal and political situations and extreme environmental factors, to limited or outdated technology, underdeveloped media systems, unusual media usage and a lack of skills among the target groups.
In many countries (and not just in the Global South), government policies mean that fundamental human rights are in conflict with law and order decrees. Governments, for example, quash people's right to privacy (which requires digital security) by introducing anti-terrorist legislation and comprehensive surveillance of people's communications, justifying this in the name of 'national security'. They can also curtain people's freedom of expression by clamping down on protests or temporarily cutting people's access to the Internet.
Internet shutdowns are now common in countries as diverse as India and Iraq; in Africa, cutting Internet access ahead of elections has become almost a habit. More than 50 countries shut down the Internet in 2016, according to the digital rights group Access Now.
A working group of the Freedom Online Coalition, a partnership of 30 governments working to promote a free Internet, is calling for an end to pitting privacy against national security.
"Individual security is a core purpose of cybersecurity and a secure Internet is central to human rights protection in the digital context," says the group in its preamble to 13 recommendations for a human rights based approach to cybersecurity. It also says: "International human rights law and international humanitarian law apply online and well as offline. Cybersecurity must protect technological innovation and the exercise of human rights."
The group also offers a new definition of digital security emphasizing the security of people as well as data.
Pillar of human rights
Digital security, once just an issue for individuals, is now a matter of Internet governance. Ultimately, the future of the Internet will be determined by whether it can serve the rights of freedom of expression and free access to information, or whether it will deteriorate into a pseudo-public space that's fully monitored and regulated.
For media development organizations, this means digital security involves more than providing technical tools, online tutorials or individual digital security solutions. Viewed from a human rights perspective, digital security has to be integrated within organizations and anchored at all levels of action. It also needs to consider the safety requirements of target groups, partner organizations and, of course, their own employees.
This security strategy has to be comprehensive, context-oriented and put users first. It also needs to be constantly reviewed and amended to keep up with changing threats and situations.
Digital security is a management responsibility. And new methods for developing appropriate security concepts, such as threat modeling, can help achieve the goals of keeping journalists and the defenders of digital rights safe.