A shrinking civic space and advanced technological means of attacking, surveilling, and silencing critics should concern all those who support civil society and other development objectives, and especially those who work with independent, investigative and community news organizations. According to Reporters without Borders’ 2018 report, “The climate of hatred is steadily more visible… The line separating verbal violence from physical violence is dissolving.”

While the digital age has greatly increased the potential for journalists to hold those in power to account, this same proliferation of information online has left journalists more vulnerable to adversaries. Beyond the killings reported around the world, journalists are being harassed physically, digitally and through the courts. While human rights and media organizations are often on the front lines of these attacks, risk and security must be considered when supporting health, environment, education, and other sectors as well, as they too are increasingly coming under attack.

Despite the relatively small community of public and private donors supporting this work, there is not a shared understanding of risks, risk tolerance, or risk mitigation within the donor community, or between donors and partners. As a result, implementing organizations under-fund or de-prioritize risk mitigation; donors lag in their ability to assess or respond to emerging threats; and the community as a whole has a scattershot approach to organizational, informational, and physical security. Resilient solutions for journalist safety demands integrating operational security into the global, regional, and national architecture for press freedom, trusted information, and journalist safety.

Internews has spent more than 35 years supporting independent media and information activists around the world. We have developed pioneering practices in digital and physical security for media and civil society, leading digital safety awareness campaigns, and improving the access for activists and journalists to secure communication channels using resources developed in-house such as LevelUp!, a resource for the digital safety training community; SaferJourno, a digital security resource for media trainers; and SAFETAG, a security audit framework for civil society organizations.

Internews recommends investment in a “community of safe actors” rather than focusing on the needs of individuals or individual organizations. We would also welcome a conversation about these issues at the donor level. The “community of safe actors” would, in most cases, be comprised of an in-country group consisting of media and civil society groups sharing information and best practices around security issues. This approach provides multiple aspects of impact:

Sectoral behavior change—Broader awareness and ongoing vigilance by members to increase behavior change across the sector. In one country context, we have seen media and civil society poorly prepared for defense against digital and physical surveillance as the government cracked down and exploited this vulnerability. In response, over the past two years, members of the development sector have increased their security capabilities with the view that those most exposed would be targeted first. However, because the sector remains fragmented, there are still organizations that have not taken measures to protect the identity of their staff and beneficiaries.

Collaboration—A more secure network for civil society and media organizations that holds itself accountable and assists each other in their common interests. For example, in another country context where there was both conflict and a government crackdown, as the environment became difficult to operate for independent media and CSOs, the international donor community formed working groups with their beneficiaries to advise and share safety information. The relationships developed through these groups remain whilst many of the donors have scaled back operations. Some of the most appropriate safety information continues to be shared without direct donor coordination.

Sustainability—Members at the country/local should have the ability to train and bring new people into the fold rather than relying on a drop-in approach.

Advocacy—A collective, coordinated approach is far more effective in achieving change both locally and internationally; and

Reporting—Sharing of incidents and information in a “safe” network allows everyone to upskill.

At the project level, we have identified ways funders can influence and support grantees in pursuit of security. To start, funders should get up to speed on the risks impacting their work. The Digital Security and Grantcraft Guide, from the Netgain Partnership, is a great starting point. Internews will be releasing a research-based donor-focused risk assessment and best-practice report later this year. Early results indicate funders should:

  • Begin the conversation, at multiple levels, early: What you fund and where you fund it affects the risk. Identify where you balance potential outcomes against potential risks. Include your decision makers, grantees, and beneficiaries in a full stakeholder discussion;
  • Signal a willingness to fund security. Directly and clearly encourage budget line items to keep partners safe, and work with partners to adapt plans if the situation changes;
  • Encourage project risk assessments in the ideation/proposal process that strike a balance between simplicity and the ability to deal with complex situations;
  • Set appropriate internal expectations — this work is critical and important, and we have to all be in partnership together to do it well and safely; and
  • Make sure partners are aware of existing emergency response mechanisms such as Lifeline or the remote help organizations listed in the  Digital First Aid Kit and consider funding these mechanisms.

Organizations that defend human rights and democracy around the world often do so in high-risk environments. The digital age has wrought the journalism community with a host of safety vulnerabilities, but it also provides an opportunity to harness technology to protect those who protect freedom of speech. Internews sees a need to connect this collective energy, together with the funder and implementer community, toward sustainable approaches to the complex issue of journalist safety, designed with the needs of diverse communities in mind.

By Rowan Reid, Project Director, Journalist Safety, and Marjorie Rouse, Senior Vice President for Programs, Internews

This essay appears in Global Media Philanthropy: What Funders Need to Know About Data, Trends
and Pressing Issues Facing the Field. With so many pressing issues affecting the media funding space as well as specific regional considerations around grantmaking strategies and priorities, Media Impact Funders turned to experts from the field and asked them to share insights across a range of media issues. Listening to those working on the ground is essential for understanding challenges and opportunities in a global context, and these essays offer critical insights that funders need to understand in the global media ecosystem. Opinions offered by essay authors are their own.

About the Author

Rowan Reid

Project Director, Journalist Safety, and Marjorie Rouse, Senior Vice President for Programs, Internews