Media Industry in South Asia

Fostering Digital Safety of Journalists

Dr Sadia Jamil & Laxman Datt Pant :
Journalists today continue to face high levels of risks due to the unprecedented impact of the Covid-19 alongside shutdown of many media outlets and authorities’ attempts to control independent media in the ploy of curbing disinformation, and or maintaining peace and security across South Asia. Although the state, political parties and government entities make a commitment to press freedom and the rule of law, there have been many instances when journalists have faced serious safety problems, which continue today in the form of digital control. The high number of threats and cases of violence against journalists taking place in South Asian countries i.e. Nepal (prolonged impunity for crimes against journalists and the proposed digital laws/ amendment in Broadcasting Regulations undermining freedom of expression and internet freedom), Pakistan (increasing intolerance to critical journalism and internet surveillance), India (lawsuits and illegal surveillance of journalists using Pegasus spyware), Afghanistan (increased security and financial challenges with over 40% mediaoutlets being closed in the recent months), Bangladesh, Maldives (proposed Evidence Bill that compels journalists to reveal their sources), Sri Lanka (harassment and intimidation of journalists, restricted access to social media alongside recent political turmoil and economic crackdown) and Bhutan (online campaigns against investigative reporting including racist attacks), seriously undermine the principles of free and independent media.
This is to note that many of the perpetrators engaged in violence against journalists are going unpunished. Additionally, the state of impunity has been diminishing public trust in security and justice agencies further contributing to an atmosphere of insecurity and oppression. Such a situation of impunity has ruined editorial independence enforcing self-censorship among the journalists. The security threats today come mainly from legislative tools targeted to control free voices, which make journalists unable to exercise their freedom in practice.
Such a situation has now led to a de facto limitation of freedom of expression and freedom of the press and that, in turn, not only threatened the peace processes and stability, but also has made the gains obtained in the process so far vulnerable. Today, journalists and the news media industry in South Asia all together confront unprecedented threats in the changing information environment – economic and market challenges, increasing distrust and denigration of their work, and the diverse forms of digital risks. Particularly now with the tsunami of disinformation, market destabilisation, digital authoritarianism, and the disruption of our daily lives caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the situation facing journalism and news media in the region is appalling. While the Internet has opened a myriad of possibilities for citizens’ empowerment and information exchange, allowing independent content producers the ability to reach a global audience of millions if not billions, it has also created countless threats to information ecosystems and freedom of expression in the digital sphere. A point of concern is that the journalists are neither aware of tools for digitally safe and encrypted communication, nor are they trained to protect themselves from digital risks. If ignored, the online threats and harassment against journalists and risks associated with their digital surveillance will arguably keep growing, thus maintaining or evening strengthening practices of self-censorship, affecting the public’s right to know and the journalists’ right to freedom of expression. There are substantial safety risks for a journalist or blogger who uses the Internet, a smart phone or a satellite phone in a war zone or under an authoritarian regime. For this reason, it is essential to take precautions regarding digital safety. It is crucial to do constant cleaning of data and information especially on social media – remove photos and comments on politics or religion that could be damaging if taken out of context. Use high-level privacy settings to restrict what is publicly accessible about you, including your networks, stories and photos, and on your Facebook profile, consider replacing your real ID with a nickname. Journalists should back up their hard disk and leave a copy at home. They should reformat their computer, i.e. permanently wipe all the data. If they don’t know how to do this, they can install a new disk and leave the old one at home. Then all they need to do is install the operating system and all traces of your previous activity will have been removed. Likewise, it is recommended to carry out all recommended updates so that journalists’ operating system, browser and their anti-virus software such as ClamXav, ClamTk, Avast, MSE, McAfee or Norton are as secure as possible when they set off. Turn on the firewall. Journalists are strongly advised not to carry out any updates once you are in the field because of the risk of inadvertently downloading malicious software or spyware. Moreover, they are recommended to encrypt their entire hard disk, using FileVault for Mac, or TrueCrypt or BitLocker for Windows. This is essential to protect their data. Using a password can further enhance safety while using e-mails, smart phones and social media accounts. Also, journalists should lock their computers’ screens and online sessions using a password. Installing a Virtual Private Network (VPN) can help to encrypt journalists’ Internet connections. This means they cannot be read by anyone else, making them secure against interception or hacking and will allow them to access sites that are blocked or censored in the country you are visiting. It is also important to turn off Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and the geo-location features of phone’s applications. In addition to these self-initiatives by media and journalists, it is rather urgent that authorities and governments across the region create and maintain a free and safe enabling environment for journalists through secured digital connections.

(Jamil is the Chair of IAMCR’s Journalism Research & Education; Pant is the Chairperson of Media Action Nepal. COURTESy: The Himalayan Times).