Highlighting the Plight of Unjustly Imprisoned Journalists

Just as it began to sink in that we were actually in North Korean territory, we knew we needed to leave. We turned around and headed back across the ice to China. I heard yelling coming from downstream. I saw two North Korean soldiers sprinting toward us with rifles …

That is how U.S. journalist Laura Ling and her colleague Euna Lee were seized in March 2009 while on assignment. The women were imprisoned until former President Bill Clinton secured their release. Ling recounts the harrowing ordeal in the recently published Somewhere Inside, which she co-authored with her journalist sister, Lisa, who used her contacts among the media and the highest levels of U.S. government to help win freedom for the women.   

“For 140 days, I lived in utter terror, not knowing if I would ever see my family again,” Laura Ling writes. 

Her story has a happy ending. However, growing numbers of journalists worldwide are being held captive by repressive governments, according to press freedom groups. The overwhelming majority lack the Lings’ household name recognition. International reporting has grown increasingly dangerous, experts say, and they don’t expect trends to change soon.

“There’s a disturbing trend in which journalists are being targeted because of their work in exposing corruption and other things that result in bad press,” says Robert Mahoney, deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). By contrast, far fewer journalists were jailed or intentionally harmed a generation ago even in war zones of Southeast Asia and post-colonial Africa.

“This impunity sends a terrible message to other journalists,” Mahoney adds.

Last December, a total of 136 reporters, editors and photojournalists were behind bars in various countries, an increase of 9 percent from 2008, according to CPJ. It was the third-highest tally in the past decade. Charges against journalists varied from sedition and divulging state secrets to violation of censorship rules. Among the aggressors in recent years are U.S. military authorities who have jailed journalists in Iraq without charge or due process. 

Despite common public perceptions that journalists are merely muckrakers seeking overnight fame and fortune, few human rights exist in countries lacking a free press. A vibrant press environment breeds the growth of free-thinking communities, which leads to stable democracies and healthy social, political and economic development.

Last year, Laura Ling and her colleague were working on a documentary for cable network Current TV about North Korean defectors, mostly women, who fled poverty by crossing the border into China, only to fall prey to traffickers and pimps who either sell them into marriage or force them into prostitution. China does not consider the women refugees but illegal immigrants who are often deported back to North Korea, where they face possible execution.

North Korea is a prime example “of a country insisting that it control all information,” says Clothilde Le Coz, Washington, D.C. director of Reporters Without Borders. This group, along with CPJ, argues that journalists should not be imprisoned or killed for doing their jobs.

“Just because Laura is home doesn’t mean the story is over,” Lisa Ling writes. “People cannot change things they don’t know about. It’s the job of journalists to raise awareness.”

As of June, 16 journalists worldwide have been killed this year, according to CPJ, and 814 since 1992. One high-profile slaying in recent memory was that of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in 2002. This spring, President Barack Obama signed the Daniel Pearl Freedom of the Press Act, which requires the State Department to expand its reporting of press freedoms by identifying countries that violate them as well as determining what role those governments had in either harming or protecting journalists.

Both Le Coz and Mahoney applaud the legislation but don’t expect it to necessarily discourage regimes that already stifle the press. Meanwhile, Web-based journalists and freelancers are becoming more common among the imprisoned. Amid ongoing financial woes throughout the news industry, publications and television networks are more likely to rely on freelance journalists rather than deploy a full-time employee and hire an interpreter, driver and local guide. The case of Laura Ling and her team traveling on behalf of her company was more of an exception than industry practice.

Furthermore, because individuals can self-publish on the Internet, they’re becoming targets too. CPJ’s annual survey found that about half of the 136 prisoners were either bloggers or other Web-based journalists and more than 40 percent were freelancers.

Mahoney says some foreign governments also silence bloggers and online journalists by disabling entire Internet platforms periodically in order to prevent photos and videos of crimes and human rights abuses from being seen abroad.

Couple those trends with the shrinking legal and monetary support from Western-based news organizations for international reporting, and the risk of imprisonment will undoubtedly rise. As Le Coz puts it, “We are not hopeful.”