More Western news organizations are relying on freelance journalists to cover foreign countries where economic realities have forced the closure of fully staffed bureaus. And the cases of Roxana Saberi, Laura Ling and Euna Lee underscore the vulnerability of these journalists, who work without the political resources and public clout of large, internationally recognized news organizations.
“If you're the New York Times correspondent in any country and you're arrested, chances are they're not going to mistreat you,” says Rob Mahoney, deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “It doesn't mean you're completely immune, but it would be a very reckless government that harmed someone [so] high-profile.”
Saberi, who has reported for the BBC, NPR and Fox News, was convicted of espionage and sentenced to eight years in prison. Her lawyers have appealed. And she has embarked on a hunger strike to protest her sentence, which was meted out after a one-day, closed trial by Iran's Revolutionary Court.
Ling and Lee were working on a piece for Current TV about North Korean refugees fleeing to China. They were picked up by a military patrol when they allegedly crossed the border from China into North Korea. According to the official Korean Central News Agency, the investigation has concluded, and Ling and Lee will be tried, though a trial date is unknown.
The dearth of public comments about Ling and Lee stands in stark contrast to the outcry over Saberi. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who faces re-election in June, has advised the prosecutor to ensure that Saberi as well as jailed Canadian blogger Hossein Derakhshan (who, like Saberi, is a dual national) are treated fairly by the court.
But no such diplomatic efforts have emanated from North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. On the contrary, North Korea continues its saber-rattling, last week saying it would begin a uranium enrichment program.
Censorship and arrest in such totalitarian countries are not uncommon. When Richard Engel was a freelancer working in Egypt in the late 1990s, he was arrested at least seven times. He was living in Cairo and stringing for several news organizations; the morass of affiliations only fueled suspicion.
“You are more vulnerable because it's less clear who you work for,” he says. “When I was in Egypt, my credentials were somewhat murky. From the authorities' perspective, particularly in countries where they're very sensitive to foreign media and don't have a lot of understanding of it, your position looks a little bit more shady.”
Even before the Internet age posed new challenges for authoritarian governments that see the free flow of information as a direct threat to their survival, journalists were frequently picked up and charged with spying. In the Middle East, Western journalists were often accused of working for Mossad, the Israeli secret police. During one arrest in Egypt, Engel was accused of working for another shadowy government agency.
“I was accused of being the CIA station chief,” he recalls. “There was a front-page article in a newspaper in Egypt. It said that the CIA station chief had been arrested.”
Covering the war in Iraq as NBC's chief Middle East correspondent, Engel says, neutralized such vulnerabilities. “They can mess with you. But it's clearer who you are,” he says. “Now if someone from the government arrests me, all they have to do is Google my name to find a few hundred reports that I've done for NBC recently.”
Bill Redeker reported from North Korea and frequently from the Middle East during a decades-long career at CBS and ABC. He was never arrested in North Korea because he was constantly accompanied by several government minders, a policy that persists today. In Iran, however, government interference was routine. But it never amounted to more than an irritant—detainment often meant a few hours or perhaps a couple of days of house arrest in your hotel room. Saberi has been incarcerated since January. Ling and Lee were arrested on March 17.
American news organizations can be of great value to isolated regimes such as Iran and North Korea, whose leaders can grant interviews as a way to conduct back-channel diplomacy. When Redeker and his producers at CBS secured an interview with President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani at the height of Irangate, it proved an invaluable chit.
“The very fact we had made a connection with him and put him on television helped to solidify our bona fides,” he says. “So, when we were in fact detained by the Iranians on a subsequent trip, of course it didn't hurt that we had interviewed Rafsanjani.”
Or that Redeker and his producers were well-connected, via a network of local fixers, to various levels of mullahs, the behind-the-scenes power brokers in Iran. Freelancers often try to fly under the host government's radar, muckraking for the latest human-rights abuses. They also travel on their own with little tactical support and almost no access to top officials, a clear disadvantage when the host government tries to make an example of them.