CPJ Journalist Security Guide

Covering the News in a Dangerous and Changing World

Sustained Risk: With Pakistani Investigative Reporter Umar Cheema
Many of the risks described in this guide are specific to a particular assignment. But critical journalists working in repressive or hostile environments often face routine harassment and constant threat. Consider the groups most responsible for murdering journalists in recent decades worldwide. Antigovernment groups, including terrorists, are responsible for nearly one-third of all journalist murders, according to CPJ research. But government officials and government-linked groups such as paramilitaries are responsible for nearly the same proportion of journalist murders. Journalists in some nations do not know whom they can trust.

Personal Security

Being aware of your surroundings is essential when facing risk of attack or abduction. Practical safety procedures should include varying travel routes, changing routines, and keeping home and office buildings locked and alarmed. It may also involve securing vehicles in a locked garage, regularly checking vehicles for explosives, and checking mail for explosives. If you are faced with this situation, you should immediately enlist the assistance of security experts. (A number of security organizations are listed in Appendix B Security Training.) In some nations, journalists working under threat have chosen to wear body armor, travel with armed guards, and post observation cameras as well as guards outside their homes and offices. In making these decisions as well, journalists should consult with security experts. Governments in nations from Colombia to the Balkans have official programs in which they assign armed escorts to accompany journalists under threat. In Colombia, in particular, teams of armed government bodyguards along with a driver and armored-plated vehicle have been assigned to journalists who have been attacked or threatened. As cumbersome as the arrangement may be, threatened or recovering journalists often feel it is necessary to protect themselves and deter future attacks. The hiring of private guards, if the cost is not prohibitive, may be another option.

Family Security

Be aware of material your family posts to social media sites. Do not share information about your family’s daily schedule or vacation plans. Take care in publishing photos.
There may be no greater fear than believing your family members are at risk. Assessing the possible risk to your family can be guided in part by the past behavior of hostile actors. Family members of dissidents were frequently targeted in Guatemala in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as they were in Iraq in the Saddam Hussein era. Such historical background can provide insight into contemporary situations. Journalists may also wish to consult local security experts, colleagues, human rights defenders, and diplomats. Be aware of the personal material you or your family post to Facebook or other social media sites. The people who wish to intimidate you are likely to seek out everything published online not only about you, but about your family as well. Do not share information about your family’s daily schedule or vacation plans, for example. Take care in publishing photos or disclosing information not otherwise public. You may wish to have your family remove certain information from their social network pages or raise the privacy settings. Some experts suggest you avoid sharing details about sensitive work with family members. Family members who are not informed about your investigative work, this logic goes, would not be targeted by assailants seeking to coerce information. Nonetheless, your family members could still be targeted as a way to broadly terrorize you and deter you from pursuing a sensitive story. Special care may be advisable to ensure that your children are monitored and escorted at all times. You may wish to consider switching assignments for a time. More drastic measures include temporary or permanent relocation of family members. Journalists may wish to contact CPJ or other international organizations that may be in a position to help.


AP Surveillance comes in many forms, from the old-fashioned tactics of shadowing journalists in the street to the electronic techniques that intercept data without leaving a trace. The former is often used by repressive regimes with limited resources, such as the African Horn nation of Eritrea. The latter is deployed with chilling efficiency in nations with well-equipped intelligence operations, such as China. Throughout much of the last decade, the Colombian intelligence service illegally intercepted emails, eavesdropped on phone conversations, and conducted surveillance against many of the nation’s most prominent reporters. In Tunisia, during the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, critical journalists were placed under constant surveillance for both intimidation and information-gathering purposes. CPJ has documented cases of physical or electronic surveillance in numerous other nations, including Afghanistan, Angola, Bangladesh, Belarus, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bolivia, Burma, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Iran, Pakistan, Rwanda, Russia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, Thailand, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, Yemen and Zimbabwe. In the United States, a former U.S. National Security Agency analyst told MSNBC that the American spy agency electronically eavesdropped on journalists in the 2000s. Physical surveillance of individual journalists often precedes violent attacks. Interior Ministry officials in Ukraine have acknowledged that their agents were watching journalist Georgy Gongadze shortly before he was abducted and murdered in a 2000 government plot. Colleagues of Geo TV correspondent Wali Khan Babar in Pakistan told CPJ that he was being followed in the days before he was killed in 2011. Babar was murdered by two assailants who intercepted his car and shot him four times in the head and once in the neck. Do a broad assessment if you are concerned that your movements, communications, and reporting material are being observed or intercepted by third parties. What are you working on that might be considered sensitive? Who might take offense at your reporting? What surveillance techniques are they likely to employ? Are they more likely to have agents follow you, or are they adept at electronic surveillance? Once you’ve gauged the level of risk and the likely methods of surveillance, you can consider modifying your activities. That could include varying your professional and personal routines, along with your regular travel routes. In electronic communications, you may want to begin using pre-arranged codes with sources, resorting to prepaid phones not linked to your name, employing encryption programs, or using secure Web email or virtual private networks. (See Chapter 3 Technology Security.) You should also consider notifying your editors and colleagues, along with local and international press freedom groups. Be aware of unfamiliar people or vehicles outside your home or office, especially if they appear more than once. Detecting that you are being followed can give you time to reduce risk. Enlisting a trusted person to observe your movements and those of potential followers is one method to confirm surveillance, but precise procedures are best imparted by trained experts. Some private security firms have added surveillance detection to training programs they offer journalists. (See Appendix B Security Training.)


Professional solidarity is important in situations in which local journalists face sustained risk. Perhaps the best step journalists can take in such environments is organizing themselves first in their newsroom, then with other journalists and news organizations within their city or region, and ultimately across their nation. Groups such as the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, founded in 1989, or Colombia’s Foundation for a Free Press, founded in 1996, have played valuable roles in curbing attacks on journalists and bringing journalists of all kinds together. The Philippine center has raised the profile of journalist murders and helped push authorities to bring those responsible to justice. The model has been followed by the Brazilian Association for Investigative Reporting, which was established in 2002 after the abduction and murder of national television correspondent Tim Lopes. The Brazilian group has pushed authorities to take action in anti-press attacks. Journalists should never hesitate to contact international press freedom organizations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, along with other human rights monitoring groups. (See Appendix E Journalism Organizations.) International groups can help raise the profile of journalists working under threat and pressure national authorities to respond.

Contingency Planning

Journalists facing sustained risk should prepare a contingency plan. The plan should include contact information for the journalist and his or her family members and editors, along with responsive government officials, foreign diplomats, and both local and international press freedom and human rights organizations. The plan should specify the frequency and exact means by which the journalist will check in with editors and family members. The plan could include a simple code for the journalist to discreetly signal an immediate threat. Codes could also be devised to signal that the journalist wants to meet at a prearranged location, or to switch to another means of communication. In the event a journalist becomes out of touch, the plan should specify how long editors and family members should wait before taking action. The plan should include a detailed list of individuals and groups for editors and loved ones to contact or call locally, regionally and internationally.
Journalist Security Guide
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