WASHINGTON – Sometimes journalists need to act a little outside their job description to protect themselves.
“Honestly, it feels a bit like pretending to be a spy,” said Danny O’Brien, the San Francisco-based Internet advocacy coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.
To help journalists assess and prevent threats to themselves and sources, CPJ released its Journalist Security Guide on April 26. A panel discussed the guide Wednesday at an event hosted by CPJ and Internews, both non-profits that promote free press.
The deaths of New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid and The Sunday Times reporter Marie Colvin earlier this year in Syria are examples of the risks journalists take. The Newseum, which maintains a memorial to journalists killed on duty, counts 21 journalists killed so far this year.
Because journalists die in the field every year, the security guide contains information about the risks reporters and citizen journalists face.
These dangers are an expanding problem, not a declining one, said Kathleen Reen, vice-president of Asia, environment and news media programs with Internews and the event’s moderator.
This is why Frank Smyth, CPJ’s senior adviser for journalist security, and O’Brien wrote the guide.
“We wrote this with the sense that journalists have much less support now than they ever did, and they have to make sure that they’re aware of that before they go into some situations,” Smyth said.
The guide is the third of its kind from CPJ and details the latest and newly recognized contingencies, such as the risk of sexual assault.
Cyber security is another issue the guide discusses because more state and private entities have spied on the press, O’Brien said.
“Journalists are the people who protect their sources, and they’re also people who gather information … that means that journalists are honey pots,” O’Brien said. “They’re collectors of information, and they become very valuable targets.”
Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Washington Post associate editor, said that, during his evolution as a journalist, he realized the notes on his computer could not only get lost or damaged in a car accident, but they could also be stolen while sitting unattended in his hotel room or “downloaded by U.S. customs agents when I was coming back to the States.”
He was the Post’s bureau chief in Iraq during the first two years of the war there and has reported in Egypt and Southeast Asia.
Chandrasekaran said he takes precautions that he never would have only five years ago.He removes most files from his laptop before he goes, keeps his contacts on paper or in a memory stick, emails sensitive material to several email accounts and takes notes in notebooks rather than on a computer.
“There’s a risk there. If the notebook gets lost, you’re kind of screwed,” Chandrasekaran said. “But I want to at least minimize the opportunities for other people to snoop into my material, for that material to wind up in the wrong hands and for others to identify who my sources are.”
Online storage can also be vulnerable, and the panelists said reporters should use it with caution.
Chandrasekaran said journalists need to think about basic things such as first aid kits, water purification pumps and other safety and medical items before going into hostile environments.
Chandrasekaran attended a security training seminar, but he said these can be very expensive, especially for freelance journalists and those not working in the U.S. For those who can’t afford the seminars, he suggested basic first aid and life saving training.
Journalists should make sure they have health insurance and know what it covers, which Smyth said is one of the most important parts of security. He said reporters should know their blood type and should inform their colleagues about it in case they need someone to speak on their behalf.
While journalists may need to use spy-like precautions to protect themselves, Smyth said reporters need to remember safety is a core function of journalism.
“Journalists must take responsibility for their own security,” Smyth said.
Editor’s note: This story was previously published on Scripps Howard Foundation Wire.