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An Assault on Press Freedom

Jun 11, 2009, 6:34 AM

The jailing of two US journalists by the government of North Korea is not only high-handed but it also represents an attack on press freedom. Both journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling are to serve 12 years in prison with hard labour. They were found guilty of "hostile acts" and illegal entry into North Korea. They had been arrested on 17 March while working on the China-North Korea border on a story about refugees.

Since their arrest, the entire world had pleaded with the Kim Jong-Il administration to show clemency and set the two journalists free. But going by the statement issued by the state-run KCNA news agency, the North Korean government was hell-bent on punishing both journalists for doing their job. It states: "The trial confirmed the grave crime they [the reporters] committed against the Korean nation and their illegal border crossing."

The issue now is not whether the charges were "baseless". Such a posture would not lead to the release of the two journalists who in our opinion were on a legitimate journalistic assignment. Due to the sort of diplomatic relations existing between Pyongyang and Washington, the North Korean government would gladly make some political capital out of the plight of the journalists. That outside observers were not allowed to witness the trial speaks volumes for the intentions of the North Korean government. That is why a lot of tact is needed in dealing with the situation. Outright confrontation would be counterproductive. What is needed right

now is dialogue and compromise that would lead to the release of the journalists.

This case has pointed up yet again the hazards of journalism. When a journalist is on a legitimate assignment, some people in some quarters could misconstrue that as "hostile acts" - whatever that means. It happens all the time, as journalists are almost always marked out as targets during armed conflicts. And in some cases, they are barred from entry certain countries because they are assumed to be spies. Nothing can be further from the truth. What security agencies and agents term as intelligence is what journalists regard as information that is meant for public consumption. The journalist gathers information for public consumption only; and not to aid specifically and purposely the strategic advantage of any government. Governments all over the world have people who are paid to gather intelligence for them.

We therefore join the rest of the world in appealing to the government of Kim Jong-Il to have a rethink on the plight of the journalists who were simply doing their job and release them. If he does that, then he stands a chance of making history as a respecter of press freedom and freedom of expression. And naturally, he would be in a better position to negotiate with Washington.

"A day, an hour of virtuous liberty is worth a whole eternity in bondage."

Joseph Addison