Monday, June 8, 2009

What Laura Ling, Euna Lee and North Korea should teach us all...


I visited South Africa for the first time 10 years ago this month. It was near the eve of the second-ever democratic election, the end of Nelson Mandela's historic term and Johannesburg was buzzing.

Some friends and I -- an African-American journalist and her Cameroonian-born journalist boyfriend -- attended an ANC rally that also doubled as a "goodbye" rally of sorts for Madiba at FNB soccer stadium in Johannesburg. It remains one of the most glorious days of my life (it was the first time I got to see Madiba up close), and one of the most terrifying.

Both my American journalist friend and I had press credentials and were allowed entry onto the soccer field near the stage where Madiba, Thabo Mbeki, Yvonne Chaka-Chaka and other South African political and cultural dignitaries were. Our Cameroonian friend not only did not have a "proper" press credential but didn't have any ID with him at all, and was told he couldn't come on the field. We all met up after the rally, where he did join us on the field.

As we were leaving, unbelievably, the same guard who had told our Cameroonian friend he couldn't come on the field saw him with us and detained him. When we refused to leave him with ANC security and Johannesburg police, we were detained as well. It was preposterous but we were powerless to do anything. We were all being punished for different reasons; our Cameroonian friend for NOT being South African, not having proper ID and for raising suspicion that he was in South Africa illegally, and my friend and I for being perceived as "pushy" American women who wouldn't stay out of African business.

Hours passed with us being stuck in a room and questioned at FNB Stadium. The conclusion was that we were uncooperative and should be thrown in jail in Hillbrow -- one of the worst, most notorious jails in Johannesburg. There was no one for us to call, no "supervisor" or anyone else for us to appeal to. Finally, a single, sympathetic officer hedged his bets and said that if our Cameroonian friend could produce ID and papers showing that he was in the country legally, they would let us all go. We got a weapons-drawn, surrounded-on-all-sides police escort back to our friend's home, where he was able to show ID and papers that satisfied the officers that he was who he said he was, and that he was in the country legally.

Some eight hours later, with nightfall upon us, we were "freed." The three of us retreated to separate corners of the house and broke down, inconsolable. Then we came together and held each other and cried some more. We knew how lucky we were and how much worse it could have been. Had we all actually been tossed into separate quarters at Hillbrow jail, there's no telling when anyone would have been able to find us, let alone help us.

Two years later I went back to South Africa on an international journalism fellowship. A videographer colleague in the program and her assistant were robbed at gunpoint in one of South Africa's most notorious townships when they went unescorted on a Sunday afternoon to shoot b-roll for a story she was working on. It was dumb and they were lucky to escape alive.

What reminded me of these stories is the North Korean government's sentencing of Laura Ling and Euna Lee to 12 years hard labor. They've been detained since March and are officially accused of illegally entering North Korea while reporting at the China-North Korea border. The journalists work for former vice-president Al Gore's Current TV.

I'm shocked that others are so shocked by the sentencing. The North Korean government is a totalitarian regime run by a despotic leader and it's been that way for decades. The U.S. has no diplomatic ties with North Korea. In other words, if you're a journalist trying to work from there, you're taking your life into your hands, as Ling and Lee have learned.

TIME Magazine seems to back me up on that

I'm not saying that Ling and Lee in any way deserved their fate but I am saying that they took a calculated risk and lost. No one should be surprised at the consequences. Every country has its own entry laws and consequences for what it sees as violations -- including ours. Frankly, we should be just as outraged by the ongoing human rights abuses and questionable detainments at Gitmo as we are about Laura Ling and Euna Lee in North Korea. I won't hold my breath waiting for that to happen.

As journalists, we tend to get self-righteous and a little cocky when we are working on stories that we think are going to serve the common good by uncovering some wrong or in this case, revealing alleged human rights abuse. Laura Ling's better-known journalist sister Lisa Ling herself previously entered North Korea under false pretenses and reported on its famously closed society.

Lisa Ling was lucky -- she didn't raise the kind of suspicion that her sister did, and made it out without incident. Plenty of others aren't so lucky. Being a foreign correspondent is exhilarating, exotic, exciting. And dangerous. In 2009 alone, 22 journalists have been killed and 143 imprisoned worldwide while doing their jobs, according to the website Reporters Without Borders, which ranked North Korea as Asia's worst country in its press fredom index.

We use the argument "oh, they're just journalists" but the North Korean government and many other foreign governments in some state of conflict with the U.S. don't see it that way. This is a country whose policies essentially flip off every other country in the world, especially the U.S., and is on the record as not valuing a free press. So it stands to follow that American-born journalists working on suspected human rights abuses in North Korea are going to be considered a threat -- and treated as such.

I'm not saying journalists shouldn't continue to tread into unfamiliar and often dangerous territory to tell important, investigative stories -- but they should be able to do it without getting the State Department involved. Because what Ling and Lee have done is unwittingly made themselves pawns in a chess game that North Korea is not afraid to play with the U.S., at possibly the worst possible time.

Journalists need to think hard about what they're doing, why they're doing it and, more importantly, how they're doing it. If you don't have a "fixer" who can all but guarantee your safety you might want to think twice about risking that border crossing.

I have every belief that Ling and Lee are going to be freed on humanitarian reasons, as the Obama Administration is asking, but the days of running around like Don Quixote are over. In this new "War on Terror" world, the stakes have been raised and the invisible line that once largely protected journalists is gone.

And every journalist who has died or been jailed in the name of their story knows it.



  1. Very interesting perspective. You are one of a handful of people I've known who have been in this situation, and the stories are always chilling. I liked this line: "As journalists, we tend to get self-righteous and a little cocky when we are working on stories that we think are going to serve the common good by uncovering some wrong or in this case, revealing alleged human rights abuse."

  2. Thanks for reading and thanks for your feedback.

    -- Sabrina