It’s hard not to get caught up in the raw emotion of the jubilant return of journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee. Seeing Lee’s 4-year-old daughter cling to the mother she hasn’t seen for nearly five months and watching Ling triumphantly pump her fists in the air, it’s tempting to put the whole episode to bed with a (very) happy ending.
But it’s imperative to remember that the story could have had a very different conclusion. Ling talked about the terror of potentially being lost for years in the corrupt penal system of a fascist regime. (”We feared that at any moment we could be sent to a hard-labor camp,” she said.) Her words offered a stark reminder of the extraordinary risks taken by journalists attempting to penetrate the shroud of secrecy that cloaks many countries.
The women, who were working on a piece for Current TV about North Korean refugees fleeing across the border to China, inadvertently wandered into North Korea and were arrested. A trial in June produced a conviction for hostile acts and a 12-year prison term at a hard-labor camp.
After months of back-channel negotiations between the State Department and the North Korean regime via Swedish intermediaries, the North Koreans indicated that they would like to have former President Clinton come to collect the women. The trip gave North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il his desired photo-op with Clinton, who apparently remains very popular in North Korea, while ensuring that Lee and Ling would not spend the next 12 years breaking rocks.
Executives at Current have remained very quiet concerning what this lesson has taught them about the need to protect their journalists, many of whom are freelancers. And none of the journalists at Current, fine as many of them are, has the safety net that can be supplied by a large, internationally recognized news organization.
As Rob Mahoney, deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, told me during an interview back in April, “If you’re The New York Times correspondent in [a particular] country and you’re arrested, chances are they’re not going to mistreat you. It doesn’t mean you’re completely immune, but it would be a very reckless government that harms someone [so] high-profile.”
To be sure, though, working for a recognizable media organization isn’t a guarantee of protection; a prime example is the continued incarceration of Newsweek correspondent Maziar Bahari in Iran.
But more than ever, news organizations depend on freelancers and stringers to cover events on the ground in dangerous, far-off places where they once had foreign bureaus with seasoned staff journalists. The culprit, of course, is shrinking news budgets. But freelancers often lack the network of contacts with government ministries and embassies that lent expatriate bureau chiefs a quasi-official status and made them players in the local scene. When a reporter working in a foreign news bureau annoyed the host government, his or her bureau chief usually knew who to call to get it sorted out.
In the case of North Korea, where the U.S. has no diplomatic relationship, any journalist wishing to enter the country would need consent from the North Korean authorities and also would be accompanied at all times by minders.
So as this new, leaner-and sometimes lone-foreign correspondent has become the norm, it is imperative for executives at the news organizations that benefit from these reporters’ bravery to make sure that the reporters are fully briefed on the official protocols and potential perils of the countries on which they are reporting. Anything short of that, as the saga of Lee and Ling proves, is irresponsible and potentially tragic.