How to protect your sources

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How to protect your sources

Nabeelah Shabbir, UK. Now working for The Guardian. 

I have to admit the first time I heard of the opportunity to go to Belarus, I truly thought being Pakistani would be a hindrance for me there, so the first thing I learnt actually was to drop that prejudice! We would never have made the trip without support from friendly colleagues in Vilnius and Minsk.

When speaking to Reporters Without Borders in Paris, the information was loud and clear: protect your sources. They were very happy to meet and explain.

Avoid using phones too much - most people are extremely happy to speak via skype and facebook with secure internet connections before heading to the country and once in it. Once we arrived we did buy sim cards, which required showing passports and putting addresses down and so on. Your phone can still be tracked and listened to by GSM companies, but it is a lesser evil: were you to call from a foreign number in the country it would be picked up almost immediately. If you do want utter security, take out the battery of the phone during interviews, it is the best bet. After that you have to just be selective about the things you say over the phone, such as disclosing names and information. Once again, this protects your source as well as your activity.

Then more official diplomatic institutions advised us on data protection software (the most important links being and These were downloaded on 4GB memory cards, and were so we could be able to access things we wanted to access and also remain anonymous with no track of any ’unwanted’ information or proof. The internet connection can get limited (sometimes they block https) or there are more things going on. In general, we did not follow these measures as we stayed away from highly prickly investigations and did other stories (media, religion, language and culture).

We felt safer in keeping our documents online or in our e-mails, and tried not to have any ’interesting’ or ’dangerous’ information on our computers; or any suspicious journalistic notes or other written  documents that could cause problems on the border. We bought local notebooks to try to cover for this a bit. This was a funny experience as I found myself trying to jot down notes in Punjabi; not advisable for a later read.

The same goes for speaking out loud. After we left Minsk one of our contacts, an election observer aged 25, was stopped for speaking about the elections on the street; he spent three hours in the police station. We talked all the time about our four days experience in the city, and it’s true sometimes you had to lower your voice as ’that guy with the Ipad sitting in the restaurant chair over there’ seemed to be listening, or be discreet as you entered the official journalist association’s offices. Just, be smart, and you won’t slip into paranoia.
We found that our hostel staff were very suspicious with us and a bit controlling about coming in and leaving via our tourist agency, so a Belarusian contact found a flat for us for the weekend in the city. It was a bit silly as we’d have to visit the hostel every now and then to pick up our temporary residency stamps, but then again they reminded us with their attitudes why we were not staying with them. Staying in the city centre is also quite luxurious, we were a few minutes away from the parliament building, but of course there are not really hostels in the city centre either.
Flying in felt very tricky as we made some mistakes (for example we forgot to apply for a transit visa to enter Minsk via Moscow which put a lot of visibility on our trip to Belarus and back). However border controls on the trains felt safer, as we took a train to Vilnius and everyone was far more plesant. We changed our passwords before coming and during the stay.
It’s more mythical that a journalist would get stopped in the middle of their work; we were in Belarus just before elections, unless they are brandishing a video camera left right and centre. A Spanish colleague experienced this and was followed on his last night in the city. He did say that he felt he was being too careful sometimes, such as taking phone calls in open space parks and so on, and gradually stopped.
Aside from this, Belarusians are very sweet friendly people, and I can’t wait to explore more of the country one day. They are very helpful too. 

Photo © Nabeelah Shabbir

Author: Handbook on Belarus for International journalists