What Next? : The Quest to Protect Human Rights Defenders and Journalists in a Digital World | Freedom House

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Executive Summary

Around the world, governments and non-state actors are using sophisticated techniques to monitor, threaten, and harass human rights defenders (HRDs) and journalists. The growing use of digital technology has empowered activists to rally citizens around common causes and hold governments accountable, but it has also opened new doors for surveillance and harassment of activists and citizens’ activities online. On November 14–15, 2013, Freedom House, funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), held a global conference in Mexico City entitled “What Next? The Quest to Protect Journalists and Human Rights Defenders in a Digital World,”1 which brought together over 60 policymakers, donors, and activists to explore the full range of emerging threats and best strategies to overcome them; take an honest look at what is and is not working; and chart a path forward for more proactive and realistic solutions to build the resilience, sustainability, and relevance of HRDs and their movements. The conference sought to answer “what’s next?” by identifying opportunities that can be exploited to build up frontline defenders and their ability to uphold human rights principles fearlessly and strategically at home and abroad.

Among the key findings were the following:

  • HRDs are facing a shifting political landscape in which restrictions against their work rapidly evolve and threats arise from state and non-state actors. To push their agenda ahead, HRDs, implementers, and donors must focus on contingency planning and put systems in place to prevent attacks and reprisals rather than responding after the fact.
  • Digital security tools are useless if they are not introduced with proper accompaniment so that trainers can assess beneficiaries’ needs and risk profiles, and help activists think robustly about changing their online and offline behavior and implementing protocols to safeguard themselves. Donor funds should be geared towards replicating and localizing existing tools and making sure they are used responsibly, rather than creating new tools.
  • Activists face a range of threats that go beyond digital attacks, including physical threats and intimidation that can also cause psycho-social harm, as well as legal and fiscal restrictions that require specialized counsel. Security trainers need to build up a minimum of knowledge in all of these areas in order to effectively strengthen activists’ self-protection capabilities.
  • Collaboration is essential to get ahead of the game, and almost 100 percent of implementers surveyed indicated that they will collaborate in some form with others. However, most of these implementers indicated that barriers, including distrust among CSOs and donor policies that disincentivize collaboration, often make collaboration difficult

The following recommendations emerged from the findings:

  • HRDs should systematize what they learn in security trainings to be proactive when thinking about their security and that of their organizations. They should also replicate what they learned with others in their network and be inclusive by sharing these tactics more broadly with those who may be at risk, including women HRDs, LGBTI groups, youth activists, and other communities facing similar challenges.
  • Activists should harness technology and the arts to build public support for their human rights causes, create self-protection networks, and seek allies to avoid being isolated by authoritarians.
  • Implementers should invest resources into establishing a more holistic approach to security training and assistance that addresses HRDs’ physical, digital, psycho-social, and  other vulnerabilities.
  • Implementers and donors must “walk the talk” on security by incorporating security protocols into their own internal practices. For donors, walking the talk also means never shying away from publicly espousing human rights principles as a core of foreign policy and development aid, and as a key talking point when engaging with repressive regimes.
  • Donors and implementers should focus less on funding new digital security tools and more on training HRDs in the use of existing tools, with an emphasis on changing behaviors that put them at risk and thinking proactively about contingency planning and security protocols.
  • Donors should use coordinated bilateral engagements with countries in which HRDs and other targeted populations are under attack to stress the state’s responsibility to protect these populations. Foreign assistance to these countries should be conditioned on, and provide support for, their implementation of measures to protect targeted populations.
  • Donors should restructure funding policies to prioritize and integrate security in all programming and incentivize collaboration among donors and implementers.

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