Are Journalists under digital surveillance?

By Liapeng Raliengoane

MASERU – The above question was directed to Journalists gathered for Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Regional World Press Freedom Day commemoration at Bulawayo, Zimbabwe earlier this month.

While making a presentation to the journalists about Digital Safety and Security, Sahara Geeks Network Coordinator Christopher Musodza said every digital tools user is under surveillance, more-so journalists due to their work. He said mobile phones are an integral part of a journalist’s daily communication, thus, information sent from a mobile phone is vulnerable, information stored on mobile phones is vulnerable and phones are designed to give out information about their location.

“We need to make informed decisions when using mobile phones, in order to protect ourselves, our contacts and our data. People often carry mobile phones that contain sensitive information. Communications history, text and voice messages, address books, calendar, photos and many other useful phone functions can become highly compromising if the phone or the data is lost or stolen. It is vital to be aware of the information that is stored, both actively and passively, on your mobile phone. Information stored on a phone could implicate the person using the phone as well as everyone in their address book, message inbox and photo album,” Musodza disclosed. 

If a journalist is engaged in sensitive phone conversations or sending sensitive text messages, Musodza said they must beware of the tracking ‘feature’ of all mobile phones and consider among other things adopting the steps below: make calls from different locations each time and choose locations that are not associated with them, keep their phone turned off, with the battery disconnected, go to the chosen location, switch the phone on, communicate, switch the phone off and disconnect the battery. Doing this habitually, each time you have to make a call, will mean that the network cannot track your movements.

On the issue of eavesdropping, Musodza recommended that a journalist must never let people whom they don’t trust to get physical access to their phone as this is a common way of installing spying software on the phone. If they are conducting private and important meetings, they should switch their phones off and disconnect the battery, or don’t carry their phones with them if they can leave them where it will be absolutely safe.

According to the report published by State Of Press Freedom in Southern Africa (2020-2021), which was released and launched by the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) on World Press Freedom Day, the internet is increasingly becoming ubiquitous, thereby enhancing the exercise and enjoyment of citizens’ rights in terms of ‘access to information’, ‘freedom of expression’ and the broader democratisation agenda.

The report further states that journalists can now reach more audience than ever before because of the internet and new digital technologies. Though the long and short of it is that the citizens of southern Africa now have access to information at the tip of their fingers, literally.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) notes that privacy is a prerequisite for journalists to do their work and ensure access to fact-based and reliable information.  In southern Africa, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe are some of the countries that have been reported to have acquired sophisticated software to survey their citizens. Digital surveillance of citizens and by extension, of journalists is the latest threat to freedom of expression, freedom of the media, access to information and the right to privacy.

It is estimated that nearly 45% of Africa’s population are 10 kilometres away from network infrastructure. The vast majority of citizens in Southern Africa have access the internet through mobile network operators.

Cybercrime laws which are meant to protect against online threats include hacking, identity theft, fraud phishing, pharming, spoofing, profiling, spyware, tracking cookies, online witch hunting, bullying and stalking, which tend to include backdoor clauses that allow countries to spy on their citizens without protective judicial oversight mechanisms to determine whether the surveillance is in the interests of national security or is unwarranted.

The State of Press Freedom In Southern Africa 2020-2021 Report by MISA Lesotho’s National Director Lekhetho Ntsukunyane says Lesotho has media laws that protect journalists and the media sector in general. On a positive note, in 2021, Parliament passed the Media Policy following over 25 years of advocacy for its adoption by MISA Lesotho and stakeholders. This policy offers protection for all citizens including journalists to seek, receive and impart information or ideas.

The report further indicates that the radio industry grew exponentially towards the end of the 20th century when regional governments took a bold decision to liberalise the airwaves. In Lesotho, this brought to an end of the 40 year dominance of the airwaves by state owned Radio Lesotho.

There are now close to 27 terrestrial radio stations and one online radio station but television broadcasting remains 100% state-owned with Lesotho national Broadcasting Services (LNBS) dominating the television broadcasting airwaves.

Digital media such as blogs, online newspapers, online radio and television stations are also mushrooming.  There are only six community radio stations which are covering 6 of the 10 districts in the country.

Lack of security for journalists in Lesotho remains a cause for concern, especially when the country is about to hold elections. There is fear that the violations of journalists can escalate in 2022 as the country prepares for general elections.

Some of the prominent violations during the period under review included the detention of 357FM Presenter Lebese Molati in November 2021 over his reports on the privately-owned radio station about the alleged disappearance of guns belonging to the police. Molati was released without a charge after he was tortured and forced to reveal the whereabouts of a police source he had interviewed.

Lesotho has a 90% 3G coverage but according to various reports, 57% of the country’s citizens do not use the internet. Of those who can afford data, 86% access it using smart phones. The majority of the population cannot afford the devices because of poverty levels.

In Namibia, an Internet Society Namibia Chapter (ISOC) campaign raising awareness on online violence, shred a story of NBC Journalist Blanche Goroses, who had suffered violent rape and murder threats in the wake of the 2019 general elections. Another female Journalist reported incidents where empty coffins were sent to her on Facebook Messenger after her newspaper published an article she wrote.

In Zambia, a young woman Iris Kaingu, who aspired for a parliamentary seat in the 2021 elections became the centre of attraction because of a “sex tape” that was leaked in 2011 and kept emerging during the campaigns leading up to the 2021 elections. In another incident, a socialite called Mwinukanji sued and received a cash settlement of K50 000 (US$ 2 900) from a person who defamed and harassed her on Facebook.

In Mozambique, in 2019, a female human rights defender Fatima Mimbre received intimidating messages and death threats on social media and abusive messages, allegedly sent by FRELIMO militants, who had publicly advocated for violence against Fatima on social media. In May 2019, Alice Tomas, a FREELIMO Member of Parliament called on Facebook for Fatima “to be raped by 10 strong and energetic men to teach her a lesson.”

In Angola, Freedom House (2021) reported that there were sporadic government efforts to manipulate online content. It was further reported that online activists and journalists are sporadically targeted with threats, though they face less violence and harassment that journalists who operate mainly in the traditional media sphere.

In Zimbabwe, female journalists and female politicians bear the brunt of cyber-bullying, harassment and non-consensual sharing of intimate images. Female journalists such as Ruvheneko Parirenyatwa and Samantha Musa have been bullied online. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex (LGBTQI) community faces online violence with their personal information often exposed by intolerant members of the community, they also face threats of physical harm and even murder as a result of intolerance and homophobia.

In South Africa, a new threat to women in journalism has emerged: cyber misogyny (hatred of women online), trolling or online social media bullying. A 2018 research report by Gender Links and the South African National Editors Forum (SANEF) showed that out of the journalists surveyed in the research, 30% women and 9% men agreed that women journalists do face cyber violence. While few women reported cyberstalking with a few saying they had been victims of unknown email or cell phone correspondence issuing violent threats, bullying and trolling, often of sexual nature.

In Botswana, female journalists also experience online violence. In 2019, a Member of Parliament for Selebi Phikwe West, Dithapelo Koorapetse was accused by the media union of cyberbullying a female reporter, Tirelo Ditshipi.  In another incident, MISA Botswana documented a case regarding a Botswana Investigative journalist Yvonne Mooka who exposed a prophet for illegal activities bordering on money laundering. The journalist was trolled online and harassed by those who did not like her investigative story.

In Malawi, in 2019 Malawian WhatsApp groups were awash with a video of a woman who was being stripped naked by men for wearing political party regalia. This woman was stripped naked and ridiculed by men of an opposing political party. The men were eventually arrested and charged with insulting the modesty of a woman, robbery and use of force under the Penal Code.