Knight projects address African journalists’ security needs

When journalists from Africa came to San Francisco looking for technological solutions to their security challenges, they found that many are already being worked on by John S. Knight Journalism Fellows at Stanford.

At the second annual Online Press Freedom Summit in San Francisco this month, the Committee to Protect Journalists brought together a group of pioneering African journalists and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, executives and technologists to discuss practical ways to protect free speech and privacy online. It was followed the next day by a special seminar at Stanford sponsored by Stanford’s Program on Liberation Technology in collaboration with the CPJ, and the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships.

What they shared and learned clearly underlines how forward-looking the John S. Knight Fellowships program is in helping to redefine and strengthen journalism.

Getting ahead of Internet repression

The focus of this year’s summit was Africa. The continent harbors some of the world’s most brutal dictators, who revel in obstructing free speech while deploying the empowering ability of the Internet and other technologies to protect themselves and their cronies, making sure their indiscretions are never made public. 

The purpose of the annual summit is to deliberate on the technological and security challenges journalists, especially those from the developing world, face as they dig up dirt and enhance the people’s right to know, said CPJ executive director, Joel Simon. This year’s meeting was also aimed at exploring ways Silicon Valley could help in hammering out solutions to the difficulties identified. 

For nine hours, journalists, activists, technologists and academics worked together to identify ways of getting ahead of state actors and corporate entities who engage in Internet repression and censor traditional media as a way of frustrating journalists reporting on their misdeeds. 

Journalists from Angola, Mozambique and Ethiopia spoke of how government officials in those countries are enacting draconian laws and churning out all manner of tricks to repress the media and weaken reporting. 

The Ethiopian journalist (who requested anonymity for security reasons) said the government has criminalized the sending of bulk SMS within the country while also engaging in systematic blocking of YouTube and Facebook. He said officials are tapping reporters’ telephones and breaking into their emails. At least one reporter, he said, has been charged with terrorism over allegations she received emails from a group labeled a terrorist organization by the administration. 

Erik Charas from Mozambique and Rafael Marques de Morais from Angola said it has become easy for government officials to obtain records of journalists’ communication with sources as top administration officials invest heavily in telecommunication companies in their countries. 

Knight Fellows’ work meets the “Wish List”

As journalists at the summit were asked to suggest solutions to these and other challenges they identified, some of the projects by Knight Fellows immediately become relevant. 

For instance, reporters underlined the need for a single, comprehensive toolkit that would provide a detailed security guide to reporters worldwide. That is exactly the project that Knight Fellow Melissa Chan is working on. Chan, who was China correspondent of for Al Jazeera English before coming on the fellowship, is spending her year at Stanford developing “an online toolkit for journalists to protect their computers against hackers and safeguard communications with sources.” 

Participants also pointed out the need for a database of press laws around the world that will, in turn, give birth to an incident database that “will not only say so and so has been arrested, but also under what laws.” That is Knight Fellow Attila Mong’s terrain. Mong, a radio broadcaster and columnist from Hungary, is working on an online “press freedom kit” with a database of media laws, best practices in legislation and a platform for journalists and media advocates.” 

Also on the summit’s wish list are platforms that allow access to and help contextualize open government data. Alums Justin Arenstein and Paul Radu spent their fellowship year in 2010 on such a database. Their Investigative Dashboard provides space for investigators to find resources, share information, and learn new “tricks of the trade.” Though still a work in progress, the platform currently “showcases the potential for collaboration and data-sharing between investigative reporters across the world.” 

I’m also working on such a tool for Nigerian journalists. 

Knowing that journalists around the world will find our work immensely useful has really encouraged me to take my fellowship year more seriously. It is a great feeling knowing that we are creating stuff that other journalists need.