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How To Report From Censored Environments

BY Jessica McKenzie | Monday, June 24 2013

Tehran, Iran (Babak Farrokhi/Wikipedia)

Iran ranked just below China on the Press Freedom Index this year at spot 174 (of 179), only slightly better than Somalia, Syria and North Korea. Considering the restraints on local journalists and the red tape being put up for foreign reporters covering the presidential election, Reporters Without Borders (RWB) published advice for reporting on censored elections. Turns out the article contains sound advice for any journalist or even traveler venturing into censored environments.

Jillian York, a writer and Director of International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, explained how one could take the very specific advice from Reporters Without Borders and apply it to other countries.

It's important to think about what your assets are and what their vulnerabilities might be, York said in a phone interview. “I wouldn't generalize [the RWB advice] for any other place . . . you have to know what your risks are before you decide what steps to take.”

Going into Israel, for example, requires lots of precautions because the government can search anyone's email, said York.

York highlighted the importance of having a “clean computer” and an encrypted hard drive. She also added one piece of advice not included in the article. “Shut down your machine entirely before you go through a border, even across the US border, because they have right to seize.”

Some of the advice from RWB reads like basic computer smarts, but with a call for heightened vigilance:

Protect your computer and mobile phones with passwords. They will help to deny access to your work.

Don’t click on links sent by a stranger.

Don’t download any software if you don’t know where it comes from.

Don’t accept contact requests from strangers on social networks.

Always identify the sender of an email before opening any attachments.

Others suggestions demand a few extra steps that would in another time and place be big inconveniences:

If you need to take files with you on your computer, take only those that will be absolutely necessary while you are there and encrypt them using PGP or TrueCrypt, which is simpler to use.

Encrypt your communications. Email is often intercepted in Iran. To guarantee the confidentiality of the messages you exchange with your editors, encrypt your emails with PGP or encrypt your chats with Pidgin and the OTR plugin.

Create one or two email address that are not associated with the media that you work for, and use only these addresses. As a result, your emails will be more discreet and will be more likely to pass unnoticed by the authorities.

You can also send your emails to a specially-created email address, from which they can be removed by a trusted third party with password access and forwarded to their final destination from another email address. This will protect the identity of the recipients of your emails while you are inside Iran.

If possible, don’t keep any browsing history. If you are in country that monitors mobile phones or if you think you are under close surveillance because of your activities, it is better not to use a mobile phone to communicate. Use face-to-face meetings instead.

If you want to keep your phone with you even during sensitive meetings, remove the battery before going. Even without a SIM card, mobile phones send a lot of information (IMEI, IMSI or TMSI numbers and network cell) to nearby relay antennae that allows them to be located. Using IMSI catcher software, the authorities can intercept these signals and locate a previously identified SIM card holder. Unfortunately, a battery cannot be removed from an iPhone.

Reporters Without Borders maintains an up-to-date list of press freedom violations in Iran, a litany of arrests and sentencings, and occasional releases.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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