Colombian journalists face new challenges with digital attacks on the rise

Colombia used to be the most dangerous country in the world for journalists, with dozens killed and threatened during four decades of armed conflict among government, rebel, and paramilitary forces.

That seems to no longer be the case: cyber attacks are now considered the most important threat to Colombian journalists, who are fully entering the digital era. According to a recent study conducted by Consejo de Redacción, a nonprofit that promotes investigative journalism, there are around 750 online media organizations in Colombia.

The Foundation for Freedom of Expression (FLIP) reported six major cyber attacks against online media outlets in 2014. It also reported 15 incidents of false social network accounts created to defame journalists. WhatsApp/text messages and emails accounts have come under attack.

Here are some examples of attacks:

The investigative weekly magazine Semana in February 2014 revealed that a secret governmental operation, called Operation Andromeda, was hiring young hackers to crack the passwords of journalists and activists to gain access to their online accounts for military intelligence officers. The Colombian Army conducted an investigation and dismissed 25 officers, but this did not allay concerns that similar attacks are on the rise.

Journalist Javier Osuna reported that on Aug. 22, 2014, unknown attackers broke into his Bogotá home and started a fire to destroy a desktop computer and a laptop with information gathered over 18 months of investigation. Osuna had interviewed victims of criminal bands formed by former paramilitary members in Cucuta, a city located in Santander, one of the states affected for decades of paramilitary violence.

On Sept. 2, 2014, Amalfi Rosales, an El Heraldo reporter who wrote about the links between government officials and paramilitary groups, survived an armed attack on her home in Barranquilla. She had received death threats via SMS messages sent to her husband’s mobile phone. After the armed attack, she fled her home.

With this information in mind, I visited Colombia and organized a set of risk assessment and training sessions with five online media organizations with the support of two major partners: the Consejo de Redacción and Connectas, a regional nonprofit partnering with ICFJ in the Initiative for Investigative Journalism in the Americas.

The journalists and media organizations I visited across Popayan, Villavicencio, Valledupar and Bogotá, the Colombian capital, include:

Agenda Propia, based in Popayán, in the Cauca Department
Noticias de Villavicencio, based in Villavicencio, in the Meta Department
El País Vallenato, the oldest online news website in Valledupar, in the César Department.
Poderopedia Colombia, an online platform to analyze relationships of politicians and private companies, based in Bogotá, the nation’s capital
Vice Pacifista!, based in Bogotá

The first step was to use Salama, an application I developed, to conduct a risk assessment of individual journalists, online media organizations and media development organizations.

What I found is both encouraging and worrisome. The Colombian media organizations are now fully entering the digital era, but they are doing so without skills to command digital security tools.

The risk assessment showed that 80 percent of journalists had no skills in encryption methods and half the journalists had little or no skills in developing strong passwords to protect their online accounts. The following chart, developed using Salama, gives a more complete picture of the problem:

Most of the reporters I worked with in Colombia are young and digitally savvy. They learned new skills in digital security very quickly. Others are experienced investigative reporters creating new online media outlets.

As they continue to investigate new criminal organizations, fraud and corruption schemes at the local level, and watch over the paramilitary demobilization and the land restitution process in the country, full command of digital security tools is a must.

Where are the risks for journalists in Africa

More than 3,760 violent incidents took place in Africa between November 2014 and November 2015. As you can see violence is more pervasive in West, East and Central Africa, with important clusters of violence in Northern Africa. This is the environment where my African colleagues are working now. The map can serve as a guide for them and for international journalists to prevent further risks when covering stories in those places.

I am going to present this map at Power Reporting, The African Investigative Journalism Conference in Johannesburg, South Africa from November 9-11, 2015. I hope it helps my colleagues to understand the risks better, to develop good security protocols and keep doing quality journalism in such challenging areas.

See the map and post comments.

Mapping risk in Veracruz

Data from the Salama application and from the map Journalists at Risk helped us to identify extreme-risk municipalities for journalists and bloggers in Veracruz, one of the most dangerous states for reporters in Mexico. Over the last couple of years, two journalists have been killed there and many others have been threatened, beaten, digitally attacked or intimidated. Those are part of the silenced areas in Mexico.

Four municipalities, out of a total of 212 in the state, are considered among the most dangerous ones in Mexico. In recent years, at least one journalist was killed in every one of these municipalities: Coatzacalcos, Las Choapas, Xalapa and Veracruz. We considered them to be extreme-risk municipalities. Five others were considered to be high-risk municipalities, because serious threats and physical aggressions, although not murders of journalists, have taken place there: Orizaba, Córdoba, Minatitlán, Tamiahua and Temapache.

How useful could this map be for journalists? Geographical information and risk analysis data have proved to be crucial in editorial planning, public policy design or budget allocation. With this data, media organizations would be able to take informed decisions and arrange security measures for local correspondents or for reporters who travel to those areas. Governmental authorities would also be able to inform their preventative measures to avoid further attacks to journalists and rapidly arrest attackers. Human rights organizations can use their resources in a more efficient manner, putting more attention on extreme-risk or high-risk municipalities.