News

July 17, 2019

Reporters Without Borders launches digital help desk

DAMIEN MEYER / AFP
Reporters Without Borders is expanding its emergency assistance service for representatives of the media and launching a digital help desk to advise and support journalists all over the world on digital security. Detailed information on topics such as encryption, anonymization, account security and a professional approach to dealing with hate speech and fake news is now available at helpdesk.rsf.org. Moreover, users can define the individual threats they are facing using an interactive tool that informs them about possible countermeasures. To avoid attempts to censor this service and to ensure anonymity, the help desk will also be accessible on the Dark Web via the Tor network.

"In journalistic work, digital threats have gone hand in hand with physical threats for some time now. Nevertheless, many journalists don't know enough to be able to protect themselves and their sources," said Christian Mihr, Executive Director of RSF Germany. The help desk will complement the existing online security services offered by Reporters Without Borders and other organizations. Digital security requirements have changed, particularly in journalism. "In addition to surveillance and cyberattacks, we are now seeing seemingly softer threats such as trolls' hate speech on social networks and targeted defamation through fake news. We want to show people how to deal with these threats in a professional way," Mihr added.

The help desk is available here: https://helpdesk.rsf.org/

On the Dark Web the service can be accessed via the Tor browser using this link: https://5qlhz3jow7zhxtpx.onion/

Internet freedom has become a surveillance trap

With the help desk, RSF is responding to rising demand among journalists for digital security training programmes. Even though since its inception the Internet has primarily been a tool for strengthening press freedom, states all over the world have recognized its potential for curtailing this freedom through repressive regulations and invasive interception and hacking measures in areas under surveillance. 

One of the biggest scandals so far this year was "Project Raven", a spying programme that came to light in January in which over a period of several years US companies, with the NSA's approval, sent employees to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), purportedly to monitor the activities of Islamist terrorists. In reality, however, the hackers in "Project Raven" were also using their modern spying software against journalists, human rights activists and opposition activists. Rori Donaghy, a journalist who has repeatedly criticized human rights abuses in the UAE in British newspaper The Guardian and other media, was among the victims of this surveillance.

On social networks too, the freedom of journalists is gradually being eroded. Across the globe data deletion laws are being passed at the national level by autocratic governments seeking to censor content on platforms like Facebook and YouTube. In November 2018, RSF conducted research showing that the impact of such legislation reaches all the way to Europe. It documented dozens of cases of exiled journalists from Vietnam living in Germany who have been blocked on Facebook, presumably due to pressure and attacks carried out at the behest of the Vietnamese government. The digital help desk also focuses on ways to counter these censorship-like measures.

Online consultations: available worldwide and resistant to censorship 

In order to reach as many interested individuals as possible, RSF will offer free online videos and online consultations on a regular basis as of 17.07.2019. These seminars can be used anonymously, either live or at a later point in time. The first seminars will focus on how to protect social media accounts against hacking, how to sidestep censorship using a VPN, and which smartphone messaging apps are best for journalistic work. Our motto here is to keep explanations as simple as possible and only recommend measures that journalists can incorporate into their everyday activities.                  

In order to address the various issues adequately and promptly, RSF has set up an additional position manned by an IT expert who works for RSF Germany's emergency assistance desk. A more individualized support service is envisaged for the near future. Besides, RSF has created the first interactive online tool that enables journalists to define their individual so-called threat model. After the journalists have stated what exactly they wish to protect online and who their opponents are the tool will inform them about the extent of the actual threat and about possible countermeasures.

Help desk part of the Berlin Scholarship Programme

The help desk is part of the Berlin Scholarship Programme for empowering journalists in the digital field. The programme is funded by the Berlin Senate Department for Economics, Energy and Public Enterprises. Within the framework of this programme Reporters Without Borders Germany is inviting 19 journalists from all over the world to Berlin for three to four months of intensive training in digital security. 

In the programme they will develop concepts for passing on the knowledge they acquire to others in their home country after their return, for instance in training courses or through websites published in the language of their respective country. More than 500 journalists from 80 different countries have applied for the nine places available in the second round of the scholarship programme in 2019. During their time in Berlin they will play an active role in developing the help desk.

A new addition to RSF's emergency assistance service and political activities

This new service complements RSF's existing activities aimed at strengthening the protection of journalists online and offline. RSF Germany's Berlin-based emergency assistance desk has supported 675 journalists since 2010, among other things by helping them gain access to medical assistance or providing support in social crisis situations. The international Reporters Without Borders organization also helps around 500 journalists in need of assistance each year.

Since 2012, RSF Germany's internet freedom desk has been campaigning for digital rights to be reinforced, for example through restrictions on the export of surveillance technology or regulation of social networks, with the goal of strengthening freedom of expression and press freedom. In the context of this work threatened journalists have repeatedly turned to RSF Germany to request assistance with practical questions pertaining to digital security.