Reporta™: Using Technology to Help Tackle Increasing Risks to Journalists

February 19, 2015 — It is a sad state of affairs in our world indeed when journalists have become a threatened class. There was a time when wearing a press vest or badge ensured safety for journalists—now, it is making reporters human targets. The past three years have been the deadliest on record for journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that at least 60 journalists were killed globally in 2014 alone for their work with 18 more still under investigation for cause of assassination.

When something goes wrong while reporting, it is often up to journalists—especially freelance journalists- to save themselves. For journalists who report in crisis areas where the rule of law is not necessarily the law of the land, what tools and organizations are available to help?

These were the issues discussed during a recent high-level Journalist Security Conference organized by the U.S. Department of State on Jan. 20, 2015. In his remarks, Secretary of State John Kerry compared his military training for the war zone to the training journalists should receive, pointing out that they do not always receive the training proportional to the amount of danger they could potentially face.

“Even though reporters aren’t sent anywhere to fight, they’re expected to do a job,” Kerry said, adding, “And the more preparation that they have, frankly, the better the chances are for them to avoid danger. Roughly two-thirds of the reporters who die violently are killed because of, not despite, their profession. They are attacked for what they have written, silenced for what they have witnessed, or kidnapped for the leverage their capture may provide. And in most cases, the perpetrators are not caught.”

Even with over 60 journalists losing their lives on the job in one year, simply for reporting on the truth, no one has been brought to justice in 96 percent of the killings that occurred in 2014, according to CPJ reports. This is a percentage that has barely changed for the 22 years this issue has been monitored.

When James Foley, an American freelance journalist on assignment for GlobalPost, went missing in Syria in 2012, his whereabouts were not known for almost a year. In an interview with NPR, GlobalPost co-founder and CEO Phil Balboni said, “We didn’t know where Jim was. We didn’t know who took him. We knew nothing. And it took an immensely long time to find out where he was.”

Today, we know that Foley was ultimately beheaded by militants from the Islamic State. Not long after, Steven Sotloff, an American-Israeli journalist who was kidnapped by moderate rebels in Syria, was beheaded as well.

This is equally the case for women journalists. Anja Niedringhaus, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer and IWMF Courage in Journalism awardee was killed in Afghanistan in 2014 when a police commander opened fire on her and her colleague, AP correspondent Kathy Gannon, also an IWMF Courage awardee who was gravely wounded in the attack. This was the first known case of a security insider attacking journalists in Afghanistan, adding to the fear that not even those assigned to protect will do so.

This year IWMF is addressing the problem with an innovative new mobile security app for journalists called Reporta™. A participant at the State Department’s conference with Secretary Kerry, IWMF Executive Director Elisa Lees Muñoz took the opportunity to discuss the purpose and functionality of the app. explaining that the goal of the Reporta™ is to empower journalists to enhance their own security by reporting incidents of abuse, creating public and private emergency networks tailored to their needs, and setting up mobile-based check-in protocols. Data gathered from the app will allow the IWMF to securely record and track trends in safety threats among users. Reporta™ is part of, not a replacement for security training. Introduction and use of the app will be integrated with targeted security training designed to create and grow solidarity networks of journalists in all environments, especially those hostile to a free and independent press.

Muñoz said, “Even or especially in the most remote corners of the world, journalists rely on their cell phones to conduct their work…why not use that same technology to protect themselves? 

The heart of the app is ability to instantaneously reach networks of individuals who care about journalists and their safety.”

In its first iteration, Reporta™ will be available in English, French, Spanish, Turkish and Arabic and Hebrew, available for free and compatible with Smartphone and Android devices.

Reporta™ has three key functions:

  • to create a check-in system for journalists when they are going into a situation which could be potentially dangerous;
  • to allow journalists to send alerts when facing impending danger; and
  • to send an SOS when experiencing an assault.

The app was developed with a grant from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and its. functionality has been developed in consultation with the major journalism organizations such as The Committee to Protect Journalists, ICFJ, Article 19, Global Journalist Security, Facebook and others. Other key partners in the initiative include Al-Monitor and the Inter-American Development Bank who funded the Spanish, Turkish, Arabic and Hebrew versions of the tool. Reporta™ is being built by RevSquare, a firm based in New York with considerable experience in building app’s and web-based tools for journalism organizations.

Reporting fellows with the IWMF will be testing the beta version of Reporta™ while on the African Great Lakes Reporting Initiative in February, and the app will also be tested by journalist user groups in Latin America, the Middle East and the US before being launched this spring.

Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Doug Frantz, a veteran journalist, blogged about the IWMF’s Reporta™ app on Dipnote, noting “this innovative use of technology will offer a safety net for freelancers and local reporters who often operate alone.”

With the advent of technology that would allow journalists to “check in” periodically and send alerts or SOS messages when in danger, the hope is that cases like Foley’s will not become the norm when journalists report from conflict zones. These are areas where reporting is most needed, but most dangerous. CPJ also reported that “Westerners are often deliberately targeted,” with almost one quarter of the journalists killed in 2014 being members of the international press. However, “nine out of every 10 journalists killed are local people covering local stories,” making their safety even more precarious if their governments do not hold the perpetrators accountable.

Of course, nothing can save journalists from people with radical, extremist beliefs intent on killing non-believers or from governments who do not uphold the freedom of expression, but journalists’ security to do their job can at least be protected in some small part by tools such as Reporta™.

For more information about IWMF’s forthcoming Reporta™ app, please contact us via our online contact form.