Breaking the muzzle: Tech and innovation in the name of press freedom

Many faces creating two big faces and a red pencil writing a red cross on a mouth
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Freedom of the press is deteriorating at an unprecedented level across the world. Dubious legislation undermining digital rights and the draconian use of technology have helped authoritarian governments tighten their grip over their citizens and the news they can access. 

Even though the use of software like VPN services can help evade surveillance and bypass tough internet restrictions, all this is irrelevant if the media is prevented from carrying on with their job. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), journalism is completely or partly blocked in 73% of the 180 countries ranked in its 2021 World Press Freedom Index.

"The Index data reflect a dramatic deterioration in people's access to information and an increase in obstacles to news coverage," the report reads.

Journalists and independent media need to get creative to be up to the challenge. They must learn how to navigate through this stringent muzzle, simply to be able to practice their profession. And thankfully, technology is helping them do so.  

In the lead up to World Press Freedom Day, we spoke to journalists working under these tough media restrictions to better understand how they manage to break through censorship, and how tech can shape the future of a free press.

A tightening grip

Last year's RSF report found that journalism is totally blocked or seriously impeded in 73 countries and constrained in 59 others. These include many states in Asia - like North Korea, Vietnam and Turkmenistan - Middle Eastern nations such as Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as African countries with Eritrea sitting in last position.

There's definitely digital surveillance going on. They know where you are. They definitely follow our phones.

Marc Hofer - Sky News, Beijing Bureau

In 2022, this trend seems to have worsened still. Following the invasion of Ukraine, Russian independent media outlets had to shut their platforms as a result of increased control. While Russian VPN usage soared among citizens, for journalists it became more and more challenging to publish local news.

A veteran among the Media Freedom Index’s worst countries, China continues to keep tightening its grip on internet censorship, surveillance and propaganda. As Marc Hofer - cameraman, editor and co-producer for Sky News in the Beijing Bureau - told us: "There is not really a free press in China anymore. It's all state government controlled."

The price to pay for journalists who do not comply with imposed narratives is psychological pressure, illegal detention and, in the worst cases, their life. 

Tech: a double-edged sword 

Digital technology is allowing governments to spy on citizens, especially on dissident voices, in a way that was unthinkable a couple of decades ago. The use of spyware technology like in the case of the recent Pegasus scandal is sadly increasingly widespread. 

Reflecting on his experience in China, Hofer said: "There's definitely digital surveillance going on. You can clearly notice that when you go in certain areas and the battery of your phone drains much faster than usual. They know where you are. They definitely follow our phones."

This climate of surveillance means that media actors must react to defend themselves and their sources as much as possible. So, protecting their online activities with the most secure VPN services or Tor browser has become imperative. 

Short for virtual private network, a VPN allows users to bypass internet restrictions while protecting their identity and data. By connecting to one of their secure servers - all the top services offer a wide range across many countries across the globe - journalists can hide their real IP address location. Plus, all their data will be shielded inside an encrypted tunnel preventing the access to snoopers.

As strict regimes have found new ways to block the use of these services, one subscription might not be enough though. "I've used several VPNs, you can't just use one because sometimes the VPN gets detected and then it gets slowed down," said Hofer. "Jumping over this so-called Great Firewall of China also gets harder and harder because the Firewall gets smarter and smarter in controlling and detecting VPN traffic." 

VPN encrypting a flow of data

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

The so-called 'onion routing' behind the open-sourced Tor browser goes even further. It routes the data through at least three servers instead of only one. And, in terms of encryption, it uses multiple layers which get peeled off as users travel from server to server.

Journalists have also learned to use password manager software, encrypted hard drives and messaging apps like Signal to secure themselves and vulnerable sources' data.

"We are also moving from using tools like Excel spreadsheets, Word and Google Drive into a more secure platform,” said Júlia Martin, volounteer researcher at the Rojava Information Centre operating in North Syria.

Although, as Hofer says: "There's a whole range of things you can try to use, but you also know that there's only so much you can do in that sense. Because, whatever goes out on air, at the end they will watch it."

Foreign journalists' conditions are worsening 

With past experience as an international video reporter across Africa, Middle East and other parts of Asia, Marc Hofer feels that China is the most difficult place for international journalists to work in at the moment. 

Based in Beijing since 2018, he witnessed a constant decline in the circumstances for international media operating in China. This brought about an exodus of foreign journalists from the country.   

"Our access to information is much more limited than it was before," says Hofer. "It's getting incredibly difficult to find people willing to talk to us. There's a concerted effort of trying to picture us journalists, especially international journalists, as foreign agents. Our freedom of movement is actively curtailed, too. You get followed, you get stopped, you get prevented from going to certain areas." 

As the last annual survey conducted by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC) shows, 99% of respondents said that reporting conditions did not meet what they considered to be international standards. Around a quarter also reported to have been targeted in online smear campaigns as a result of their work. The new use of the law against international media is also something that worries many. 

As Hofer told us: "The situation will definitely get worse."

It's under this climate that humanitarian activists, researchers and independent journalists across the globe are looking into innovative ways to support local and international reporting. 

Rojava Information Centre (RIC) is one of those. Operating in the Kurdish-led autonomous region of North and East Syria (NES), this non-profit organisation is helping journalists to get direct access to sources on the ground while supporting media with insightful reports and fact-checking activities. Their aim is trying to break through the fake news dissemination of the neighbouring Turkish regime. 

Researcher Júlia Martin said their small team composed of about 10 volunteer-staffed members are always looking to develop new projects that could foster media freedom within the region.

I just would like to ask people to continue having their phones charged, connected in any way. So that they can help us with their citizen's journalism to shift the regime’s narratives.

Lázaro Chirino Díaz - CiberCuba

"The RIC was created with the aim to reach the mainstream media and public, using a kind of discourse that Western countries could understand," says Júlia. "However, I also think that our presence has helped the general environment inside the region."

This important work comes with not just a few risks. And these are not limited within authoritarian countries' borders. UK activist, journalist and co-founder of the RIC project Matt Broomfield, for example, was recently detained in Greece for 2 months and banned from entering the Schengen Zone for a decade as a result of his reporting.  

However, Júlia doesn't seem put off by these risks. Quite the opposite - she feels even more motivated to carry on.

“I think that the fact of our colleagues being prosecuted by European states means that our work is important and we need to keep doing it. So I'm not scared, but there's always a concern,” she said. 

Beating censorship from abroad

In some instances, local independent journalists are finding that working outside the country is the best way to evade censorship and surveillance.  

Lázaro Chirino Díaz is indeed one of the many who have fled his homeland Cuba to be able to freely practice his profession. As Madrid-based NGO Prisoner Defenders confirm, Cuba has detained 1,027 people in just the last 12 months. Among these, many were journalists. 

“Cuba is a constant ministry of truth where history is rewritten. Where the past, present and future are rewritten. And where each of the people who live there, lives in fear,” said Lázaro.

From his room in Madrid, Lázaro is now reporting on Cuban events as he always wanted. He works for the Valencia-based CiberCuba, one of the several free media outlets covering Cuban current affairs from abroad. Others include the CubaNet, ADN Cuba, Periodico Cubano operating from Florida and the Madrid-based Diario de Cuba.

From their exile, Cuban independent media are finding new ways to break through the muzzle suffocating the Caribbean island. To bypass censorship on their site and allow Cuban civilians to access news, CiberCuba has even developed its own encrypted app. 

"We also actively used our Telegram channel and Facebook page to spread our content," explained Lázaro. "While in the whole world Facebook is being used less and less, in Cuba it has a very important role. We do have a significant presence on this platform inside the country. That is where Cubans read us the most.“

A guy with a mask of Guy Fawkes painted with the Cuban flag colour during a protest

The largest anti-government demonstrations since 1994, the so-called 11-J fueled across the country from July 11 to July 17, 2021. The wave of protests resulted in hundreds of arrests. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

Despite the crucial role of independent media, Lázaro thinks that citizens are the ones that will make this change possible. How? By risking their freedom in denouncing on social media the problems wracking their beautiful island. 

"We, journalists, are simple mediators between readers and sources," says Lázaro. "But it’s thanks to social networks that we, independent journalists outside of Cuba, learned about the 11-J protests. Thanks to that first boy who started broadcasting with his smartphone, and today he is in prison for this. 

"I just would like to ask those people to never stop doing it. To continue having their phones charged, connected in any way. So that they can turn it on and help us with their citizen's journalism to shift the regime’s narratives.”

Chiara Castro
Senior Staff Writer

Chiara is a multimedia journalist committed to covering stories to help promote the rights and denounce the abuses of the digital side of life—wherever cybersecurity, markets and politics tangle up. She mainly writes news, interviews and analysis on data privacy, online censorship, digital rights, cybercrime, and security software, with a special focus on VPNs, for TechRadar Pro, TechRadar and Tom’s Guide. Got a story, tip-off or something tech-interesting to say? Reach out to