Digital Security and Press Freedom in Latin America

February 12, 2013
12:00 pm - 02:00 pm


Mariclaire Acosta, Freedom House
Eduardo Bertoni, Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow/National Endowment for Democracy
Jorge Luis Sierra, International Center for Journalists/Freedom House
Frank Smyth, Global Journalist Security

Introductory remarks by:

Joyce Barnathan, International Center for Journalists

Moderated by:

Miriam Kornblith, National Endowment for Democracy

About the event

Advances in mobile technology, the expansion of the Internet, and the development of social networks have provided new communication platforms and digital tools for journalists, citizen reporters, and bloggers. They have helped break down barriers to press freedom and advanced democratic rights.

At the same time, these developments have created new threats to security for media workers and their sources. This is particularly true in parts of Latin America where organized crime, paramilitary groups, and authoritarian officials threaten independent journalists and bloggers alike. Their ability to censor and block information has a chilling effect on freedom of expression.

As a new survey on digital and mobile security among Mexican journalists and bloggers notes, corrupt actors are using new technologies to identify and monitor those who may speak out against them. This has resulted in increased fear and self-censorship among reporters.

A joint project between the International Center for Journalists and Freedom House, the survey finds that as journalists increasingly use online platforms, social networks, and mobile devices to post comments or reports about crime and corruption, they face serious digital risks to their identity and privacy.

  • How well do reporters in the region understand the dangers of digital technology?
  • How do these dangers differ in places like Mexico, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Cuba?
  • How can they use technology to empower independent media and combat censorship?

Panelists explored these questions and provided recommendations for how media development stakeholders can improve digital safety training as part of overall democracy and governance efforts.

About the speakers

Mariclaire Acosta is the director of Freedom House in Mexico. She has more than thirty years of experience in human rights across Latin America, and Mexico in particular, working for civil society organizations, the government of Mexico, and various multilateral organizations. Acosta has held the titles of special ambassador for human rights and democracy under former Mexican President Vicente Fox; special advisor for civil society affairs to the secretary general of the Organization of American States; and director for the Americas at the International Center for Transitional Justice. Throughout her career, Acosta has devised strategies, led projects and trainings, documented human rights violations, and facilitated dialogue among various actors in the pursuit of human rights.

Joyce Barnathan is president of the International Center for Journalists. She has more than 20 years of experience as an editor and reporter for BusinessWeek and Newsweek, among other publications. She began her career at BusinessWeek in 1990, where she served most recently as executive editor, Global Franchise, helping create new editorial extensions and alliances. Barnathan also worked as assistant managing editor, supervising nearly every department at the magazine, and as Asia regional editor, helping to launch the Asia edition, which won prestigious awards for coverage of China’s growth, Asia’s financial crisis, and the turmoil in Indonesia. From 1979 until 1988, she held a number of posts at Newsweek, including Moscow bureau chief, special national political correspondent, and State Department correspondent. Barnathan is the winner of five Overseas Press Club Awards, including three as part of BusinessWeek‘s Asia team, as well as the National Headliner Award. She is a trustee of the Arthur F. Burns fellowships program.

Eduardo Bertoni is a Reagan-Fascell democracy fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, where he is exploring the prospects for and obstacles to freedom of expression on the Internet in Latin America. He is also the director of the Center for Studies on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information at Palermo University School of Law, in Buenos Aires, where he teaches human rights and criminal law. He served as executive director of the DC-based Due Process of Law Foundation from 2006 to 2009 and as special rapporteur for freedom of expression of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights at the Organization of American States from 2002 to 2005. Bertoni has also been a legal advisor to nongovernmental human rights organizations in Argentina and an advisor to Argentina’s Ministry of Justice and Human Rights. He has published opinion pieces on democracy and human rights in leading newspapers in the Americas and has written several publications on the right to freedom of expression, judicial reforms, and international criminal law.

Jorge Luis Sierra is a Knight international journalism fellow who is building a map to track violence against journalists and bloggers in Mexico with the goal of training them in digital and mobile risk reduction strategies and security protocols. This is a joint project of Freedom House and the International Center for Journalists in Mexico. He is also running an online investigative journalism project on crime and corruption in Panama. Promoted publicly through a collaborative group of newspapers and television stations, the crowdsourced mapping platform he created highlights reports sent in by users to identify trends in an area rife with organized crime.

Sierra is now building a similar map to track violence against journalists and bloggers in Mexico with the goal of training them in digital and mobile risk reduction strategies and security protocols. Sierra is an award-winning investigative reporter and editor who has covered drug trafficking, organized crime, counterinsurgency, and other conflict-related topics for print media in both the United States and Mexico. He studied international journalism at the University of Southern California; defense policy and economics at National Defense University; psychology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico; and creative writing at the School of Writers in Mexico City. He authored the book The Enemy Inside: Armed Forces and Counterinsurgency in Mexico and has written widely on national security issues.

Frank Smyth is the founder of Global Journalist Security, a new kind of consulting and safety training organization dedicated to bringing appropriate and effective security skills to journalists in less-developed nations. Smyth is a journalist who has specialized in armed conflicts, organized crime, and human rights, reporting from around the world, including El Salvador, Guatemala, Sudan, and Iraq where, in 1991, he was imprisoned for 18 days.

Smyth has reported, produced and filmed for CBS News radio and television, and written for the Nation, the New Republic, the Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, and Harvard International Review, among others. He has testified before the Organization of American States, the International Commission of Jurists, and the U.S. Congress. He is co-author of Dialogue and Armed Conflict, and a contributor to The Iraq War Reader and Crimes of War. His study, Painting the Maya Red: Military Doctrine and Speech in Guatemala’s Genocidal Acts, was published in 2010 by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Smyth has taught journalism, media studies and political history at American University and the Corcoran College of Art + Design. He is a graduate of Boston College and Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.