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Safe and election-ready: Journalists recognize need for digital security amid pandemic

Safe and election-ready: Journalists recognize need for digital security amid pandemic

Published Date: December 2, 2021

As the media’s role in delivering life-saving, relevant information has become more vital amid the pandemic and the upcoming 2022 elections, what knowledge and competencies do journalists need to protect themselves as they serve in the frontlines?

On top of safeguarding their physical and mental health, journalists need to ensure their digital security.

This was highlighted in the online training sessions on ethical and professional reporting and election coverage amid the pandemic organized by the Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication (AIJC) and UNESCO Jakarta with support from the Netherlands.

The three batches of the training, conducted from August to September 2021, were part of the Strengthening Safety of Journalists and Professional Journalistic Standards in the Philippines Project. The resource persons were Johanna Son, Filipino founder and editor of Reporting ASEAN, and John Reiner Antiquerra, Program Officer for Outreach and Communication at the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL).

As journalists operate in a “diverse,” “noisy” and “toxic” digital environment, understanding threats to digital security has become a must, according to Son. She said this “brings into play the familiarity with some digital issues that we can no longer separate from journalism itself.”

One participant, Calbayog Journal editor-in-chief Josephine Mendoza, shared that a key takeaway from the training that she can immediately apply in her work is “safeguarding digital data.” She said, “The training made us see what needs to be improved and what practices to stop.”

CNN Philippines news producer JM Nualla, on the other hand, said “having better digital security such as investing in VPN” is something he can immediately work on.

Protecting one’s digital data was one of the key responsibilities stressed by Son, and apart from investing in a virtual private network (VPN), she also recommended using “more secure” apps such as Signal for instant messaging and online browsers that enable users to search the internet more privately such as DuckDuckGo and Brave. These are examples of browsers that “do not track you” and “do not gather your data and sell it or use it for their businesses,” Son noted.

Apart from the digital security tools that must be in a journalist’s toolkit, Son discussed the need to tackle misinformation and disinformation, especially with the consequences of having “a lot of manufactured debate in social spaces” during election season. She posed the following questions: “For news work, how do we make the best of online spaces and how do we reduce the worst of it in a world that is very distracted and where attention spans are getting shorter? In the context of polarization, how can journalists be in the same space?”

Son said journalists “cannot escape” social media as “essential extensions” of their work, but they must be careful by using this as “storytellers,” rather than as “warriors” or “players” in it.

Antiquerra, who provided an overview of the second edition of the Code of Professional and Ethical Conduct in Covering Elections developed by the Philippine Press Institute (PPI) in partnership with AIJC, also discussed the ethical challenges journalists face in using social media. Citing the Code, he advised participants to “avoid engaging in hostile exchanges” on social media and “avoid posting opinions on social media” such as endorsement of candidates during elections, as journalists are perceived by the public as representatives of their respective news outlets.

“Although sometimes we are very clear that when we post, this is a personal viewpoint…it seems that when people know you’re a journalist, they don’t always make that distinction,” Son pointed out. “The challenge is… how do you post and what do you post? Use the parameter of prudence and professionalism and wisdom. Stop and think; don’t do things on impulse, and then see where that leads you.”

Some of the participants shared their own news outlets’ social media policies. Son acknowledged that while these guidelines may vary, what is important is that these are discussed among the journalists, and that all journalists are equipped with not only social media ethics but also digital security competencies.

“The safer digital habits don’t have to do with who you are or what kind of story you’re doing,” Son said. “It’s healthy journalistic practice.”