Online Safety

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The traditional concept of the term ‘journalist’ has evolved. According to the description of the UN Special Rapporteur on the protection and promotion of the right to freedom of expression and opinion, journalists are individuals who observe and describe events, document and analyse events, statements, policies, and any propositions that can affect society, with the purpose of systemizing such information and gathering of facts and analyses to inform sector of society or society as a whole. Such a definition of journalists, according to the same report, includes all media workers and support staff, as well as community media workers and so-called “citizen journalists” when they play that role. Furthermore, as affirmed by the resolution A/HRC/RES/20/8 adopted by the Human Rights Council on 16 July 2012 on the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet, “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression.”

The digitalization of the media landscape reinforces the global trend of freelancing by further expanding journalism beyond the ranks of employees in media institutions.  Included in the supply of news today are citizen reporters and individual bloggers. While they may lack established forms of institutional gate-keeping, it is in society’s interests that they receive the same protection as professional journalists.

Digitalization also means that more and more information is transmitted and stored online. In consequence, it is now necessary for journalists to be equipped to better protect their electronic information records, including the identities of their sources. Journalists have had their mobile phones and computer equipment confiscated, and their email accounts subjected to illegitimate surveillance and hacking. A number of media websites have been disabled by attacks or maliciously infected with “Trojan” viruses. Journalists increasingly need to know how to protect important and sensitive data.

The issue of safety online also concern more than just the individual blogger or professional journalist. With the rise of institutions playing a mediating role on the Internet between authors of content and audiences, they need to understand international standards and their implications. Any limitation to freedom of expression must be imposed as a truly exceptional measure, must be provided by law, and in the pursue of legitimate purpose and be proven as necessary and the least restrictive means possible .  Accordingly, awareness and sharing of best practice is needed to ensure that intermediaries can provide principled responses if they are to protect freedom of expression in the face of mounting pressures to disclose user identities, conduct surveillance operations or take down content when there is an objection.

All this resonates with the evolution of the Internet as a platform that to date has attracted less restriction than other media platforms. The free and open character of the Internet, which is a precondition for online safety, is underpinned by a multi-stakeholder model of governance as confirmed by the resolutions of the World Summit of the Information Society.

Points for reflection:

  • How well do reporters understand the risks of using digital technology?

  • How do these dangers or potential of digital technology differ from region to region? 

  • What emerging and possible new threats endanger the safety of journalists, bloggers, citizen journalists and others expressing themselves in the digital realm?

  • How aware are journalists of these threats, and how do they respond?

  • What are common misperceptions surrounding digital safety?

  • What systems exist amongst intermediaries, and how prevalent are they across the world?

  • What role can governments, international organizations, civil society, the media and other private sector actors play in ensuring journalists’ digital safety?

  • How can Internet freedom and its multi-stakeholder basis be reinforced?

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