Martus for Journalists at TechCamp New York City

By Benetech, posted on

Narrative accounts. Testimonies. Voices from the field. Stories are a journalist’s greatest asset, just as they are for the scores of human rights groups around the world that Benetech’s Human Rights Program has supported for over 10 years with Martus technology and training. But here’s the challenge: collecting and transmitting these stories, especially in conflict zones, expose journalists to grave risk.

In fact, all over the world, violence against journalists is on the rise. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, one of several international organizations that track and report of violence against journalists, imprisonment of journalists reached an all time high last year. Attacks, beatings, intimidations and kidnapping of journalists are also alarmingly high. And worst of all, many are killed as a result of their work (you can find more information about violence against journalists via the International Federation of Journalists, the International Freedom of Expression Network, Reporters Without Borders and Speak Justice Now). This hostile climate discourages freedom of expression and might foster a culture of self-censorship, where journalists choose not to report on particular issues, or may not visit certain places.

How can journalists better protect their information, themselves and the sources, victims and witnesses who trust them with their stories? How can information security technology be applied to better keep journalists safe? How can mobile technologies help journalists working in conflict areas to quickly alert national and international support organizations when they or colleagues are injured, arrested, kidnapped or killed?

These are some of the questions our Human Rights team is considering these days, as the Martus user community is broadening from human rights defenders to citizen and professional journalists (and other social justice actors), and as we’re moving forward with building the next generation of Martus technology. These were also some of the questions addressed by a team of technologists and journalists at the July 2013 TechCamp workshop in New York City, which I attended as a representative of Benetech.

Co-hosted by the United States Mission to the United Nations, the State Department’s Office of eDiplomacy, the United States Institute of Peace and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, this latest TechCamp brought together about 80 journalists working in conflict zones, non-governmental organizations, journalist assistance programs, UN and government officials, and technologists from experienced organizations like Benetech. TechCamp fosters a quirky and productive setting that prioritizes collective problem solving and the creative generation of ideas and effective technology solutions by participants themselves. I was there to hear from journalists about their unique challenges and to capture their in-field information management and security needs.

In a session I co-led with Bryan Nuñez of the Guardian Project, a group of journalists explored the ways in which Martus can help them securely collect, organize, store and analyze interview data. We also explored sending information to editors and colleagues, and editing drafts from the field. All this while protecting the personal information of sources, witnesses and victims and increasing their own safety when moving across borders within or out of conflict zones.

Journalists also explored Guardian’s mobile tools, including ObscuraCam and InformaCam (in development), which are compatible with Martus and therefore allow users to protect the identities of victims and witnesses or verify media, respectively, when capturing mobile media in the field.

This was a great opportunity for us to share our latest news: the upcoming release of our fully tested Mobile Martus 1.0—a free, open source secure Android-based mobile documentation application built on our Martus technology. Mobile Martus allows users to send crucial data from the field—including text, photographs, audio and video—to the Martus network of secure servers.

The data is automatically encrypted on the mobile phone, and when being sent to the backup server, so it is protected in case the phone is lost, stolen or confiscated. A user—say, a journalist or the organization that they designate, such as a home news agency—could later retrieve the data from the secure Martus server and search, analyze and report on the information, using the Martus Desktop Client software on their computer.

But perhaps most exciting of all was the engineering of a new idea: the application of Benetech’s new Mobile Martus for Android tool to documenting violations against journalists in the field. With a hybrid team of journalists and technologists from the Guardian Project, DevInfo, the United States Institute of Peace, Periodistas a Pie, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and others, we brainstormed and drafted a project plan to develop Mobile Martus as a tool for collecting data about violations against journalists in remote areas while prioritizing journalists’ safety and security. We put together a standard Journalist Incident Report form that journalists could adapt and access in the field, using Mobile Martus, to securely send the sensitive information they capture to national and international support organizations. We also learned that journalists need accessible information security training and are now working with other groups in order to develop a training curriculum on Martus for journalists. You can read more about this and other workshop sessions in a blog post by Michael Dwyer, our colleague at the United States Institute for Peace.

At this moment, somewhere in the world, journalists are looking at their phones, wondering whether the information stored on their devices will put them or their sources in immediate danger. We hope to find the resources necessary to create a full-scale Mobile Martus Journalists Reporting tool to ensure that journalists have a reliable mobile reporting mechanism that is easy to use AND prioritizes their safety, so that no incident or violation faced by a journalist in the field goes undocumented.

If you’re interested in more information about Martus for journalists or would like to share your ideas, please contact our Human Rights Program Outreach team.