BY Elena Cosentino, INSI director

"Never was the need to stand together greater than it is today"

When I joined INSI in April 2019 I realised how relatively easy I’d had it covering international current affairs over the years.

While my job carried some risk, I usually knew where the danger might come from: a disgruntled narco or corrupt federal in Mexico, a paranoid intelligence officer in Gadhafi’s Libya, a trigger-happy gang member in Haiti or, simply, a rickety old taxi on a badly potholed road pretty much anywhere.

The threats were mostly predictable and geographically specific which certainly helped when it came to assessing risk and trying to mitigate against it. 

Things began getting worse for the news media after the second Gulf war. Journalists were turned into highly prized targets of kidnapping - or worse - by radical jihadist groups and repressive regimes. Though the risks were greater, they were still largely confined to a limited number of journalists on high-risk assignments in conflict areas. That meant media organisations mainly trained staff assigned to hostile environments overseas, an expensive proposition but one that was fairly clear cut.

Over the last few years, however, things have taken a less predictable turn, as a perfect storm of technological progress and political regress has exponentially increased the number of journalists exposed to danger.

It has also made it much harder to define danger or evaluate the credibility and the source of the threat, let alone mitigate against it. The time and resources required to assess risk have spiralled as no threat can be taken lightly.

As media in some Western democracies are disparaged by their own governments as “enemies of the people” and “vile jackals”, hostility towards journalists inevitably becomes normalised, spilling over into online abuse and even physical violence on what were previously considered safe assignments.

Journalists covering Westminster or a US election campaign now often need tailored safety training, back-watchers or even bodyguards to protect them from members of the public aping the abusive rhetoric they hear from elected political leaders.

Online threats have become a daily reality for all media workers, yet most journalists learn how to wipe their online profile of personal data only when it’s too late.

No beat is entirely immune. Those covering sports, society, the environment and science can equally become targets and be harassed out of their jobs for sending seemingly trivial tweets. Unsuspecting media staff with no editorial responsibility in a production who, for instance, appear in the credits, may become soft targets for abuse as well. Reporters, and even their extended families, have been ‘doxxed’ or ‘swatted’ and scared into isolation, particularly in the US.

Women are particularly vulnerable to the anonymous threats and abuse.

Cyber attacks by individuals, politically motivated players and state actors are used to intimidate journalists, to blunt the impact of their work. News organisations cannot rely on the full backing of western governments, as many are effectively shrugging their shoulders when journalists are attacked, abused or even killed.

The financial cost to the news media industry of tackling this onslaught is huge. The human cost, particularly to mental health, has still not been fully calculated.

Media organisations are left wrangling with a mammoth task of potentially having to train all of their staff and freelancers on an ever-expanding list of dangers – both on and offline. It may eventually come to that.

But something needs to happen sooner. Without media safety there cannot be editorial freedom.

The seriousness of the situation requires a decisive corporate mind shift. News organisations must emphatically set competition and commercial rivalries aside around the common goal of media safety. This means having the willingness and courage to share real-time actionable safety intelligence, as well as mistakes and best practices. It is the only way of identifying each other’s blind spots and capitalising on the industry’s collective strength.

INSI is here to help. Our mission is to work with our members, over 40 of the world’s leading news organisations, and the wider journalist community, to develop new ways to cooperate for the protection of news media and journalism itself. That is what INSI was created to do 18 years ago and is what we intend to do more than ever in the year ahead.

Read INSI's annual report.

Image by AFP