The second European Games is scheduled to take place in Minsk, Belarus, from June 21 to June 30. Local and international journalists covering the Games should be aware of media regulations, the potential for data theft, and the risk of a digital security breach.
Over the past two years, CPJ has documented the tightening of regulations on online resources in Belarus, searches of editorial offices, increased prosecutions and harassment of freelance journalists, and arrests of media covering protests. In a submission to the U.N. Human Rights Committee in 2018, Amnesty International highlighted authorities’ use a surveillance framework, known as the System of Operative Investigative Measures (SORM), with which all telecommunications providers operating in Belarus must comply. SORM allows local authorities to carry out real-time monitoring of communications by accessing all user communications and associated metadata, Amnesty found.
Local and foreign journalists covering the Games are legally required to have accreditation. The non-governmental body, the Belarusian Association of Journalists, advised all journalists covering public events to have their accreditation and press insignia clearly on display to avoid prosecution and a fine. Hotel security guards are also allowed to conduct searches and inspections, the association’s memo said.
International journalists should take the following steps to tighten their digital security prior to travel:
- Check your online profile. Have you reported critically on Belarus? If so, your risk is higher. If possible, take steps to remove this information.
- Review the security of your email and social media accounts. Create strong and long passwords (known as passphrases) that are unique for each account, or consider using a password manager. Activate 2-step verification for your accounts, but make sure you are familiar with how this feature works while traveling abroad. You may wish to consider creating a temporary email account to use only during the European Games.
- Ideally, take clean devices–ones bought specially for the trip–to Belarus. On these devices, carry only documents that are relevant for your coverage there. If you are not able to take a clean device, ensure that you remove personal and work-related documents, including photos. Back up all your information before traveling.
- Consider using Signal or WhatsApp. Local journalists have told CPJ that services such as Tor and VPNs are restricted.
- Familiarize yourself with the security vulnerabilities and the risks of communication tools before traveling.
- Power off devices when going through security and immigration checks at the airport. Log out of all your accounts, including apps on your phone, and clear your browser history before traveling.
While in Belarus, journalists should be aware of the ways that devices could be compromised. To minimize the risk:
- Avoid leaving equipment unattended or letting others carry your equipment. Hotel rooms and the hotel safe should be considered insecure. If you must leave your devices, set safeguards to tell if your belongings have been tampered with. For example, take a photo of their exact positioning before you leave, so that you can compare it on your return.
- Do not connect devices to unknown computers and do not use phone chargers offered to you by others.
- Avoid logging into personal accounts or any accounts that are not relevant for your work when in Belarus.
- Phishing attacks are a potential threat. These are emails or messages sent to your accounts, including social media accounts that contain malware hidden in links or documents. Journalists need to be vigilant to these attacks, even when the message appears to be from someone they know.
- Public Wi-Fi spots, including in your hotel room and at media centers, are highly likely to be compromised. Use a mobile hotspot when possible.
Upon returning home:
- If you have access to tech support, take your devices to be examined before connecting to any network. The support staff will be able to scan your equipment and advise accordingly.
- If you do not have access to tech support, scan your own devices for malware and follow procedures to clean any infected devices.
- It is advisable to change all passwords for any accounts accessed while on your trip to Belarus.
CPJ’s digital Safety Kit provides journalists and newsrooms with basic safety information on physical, digital and psychological safety resources and tools.