Though a UN report explicitly highlighting North Korea’s human rights abuses has occupied attention since last week, a similarly damning report came out just before that on the nation’s press freedom.
In the annual Press Freedom Index released by the France-based NGO Reporters Without Borders (RWB), North Korea retained its dismal international ranking, ahead of only Eritrea in northeast Africa. This standing is all the more meaningful this week, as the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea highlighted, among other things, a lack of freedom of the press and a lack of access to the Internet.
In its official report, RWB described North Korea, Eritrea and Turkmenistan – the Central Asian nation that consistently ranks third from last – as nations where press freedom is essentially “non-existent.” RWB has had much to say about North Korea in the past; following December’s sudden purge and execution of Kim Jong Un’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek, for instance, they labeled the coordinated coverage of Jang’s arrest by state media “mass intimidation.”
Their annual ranking was re-enforced by the UN COI. The commission’s report stated that editorial freedom does not exist in the North, that all content published at all levels is “centrally controlled,” and included the story of a North Korean journalist sentenced to six months in a training camp as punishment for misspelling the name of national founder Kim Il Sung.
Another thing the RWB ranking and the UN COI report have in common is that they were compiled without the North’s cooperation.
“Although we do not get reports regularly along the year, we can however find more information online and get in touch with experts on the region, including journalists, academics, South Korean media or other foreign media, some of (those) who have undergrounds networks of citizen journalists, and even the South Korean government,” RWB’s Head of Asia-Pacific Desk Benjamin Ismaïl told NK News.
And if RWB cooperation with the South Korean government raises any eyebrows, keep in mind that Ismail also shared criticisms of their performance since President Park Geun-hye’s inauguration last year. In particular, he noted its “growing intolerance to criticism” and that “everything positive related to North Korea can constitute a crime, justified by the (National) Security Law.”
Many aspects found outside of North Korea can be taken into account when determining its ranking, Ismaïl said.
“There are some facts taken into account like, for example, the existence or not of a transparent process of allocation of frequency for broadcasting media, etc.,” he said. “And also a significant part of it is the survey, distributed by local journalists, academics and bloggers and other types of experts on the country. In this case, all of them are based abroad, but they also have a knowledgeable input to give on the country.”
‘It seems a state mission of North Korea to inhibit real journalism’
So, rather than statistics on press freedom violations, North Korea’s ranking has more to do with the structural absence of press freedom, he said.
Reporters who have covered North Korea were not surprised by its ranking.
“It seems a state mission of North Korea to inhibit real journalism,” said Chico Harlan, who covers the North for The Washington Post. “And of course the state news agency, though sometimes illuminating, is nothing but a PR wing that abets the regime.
“I should mention, as a caveat, that I’ve never been to North Korea as a reporter. But it’s hard to imagine that any kind of credible journalism is possible on the ground in the North, given that you are only given access to their Potemkin version of reality.”
Harlan called the North the only country he can think of which a journalist can more accurately cover by staying outside the country.
“I don’t see any evidence that North Korea intends to improve conditions for reporters,” he said. “They’ve used the same system for decades with only modest modifications. Which is a tragedy of course.
“My bet is that we’ll only find out about the ‘real’ North Korea after a collapse, when reporters can visit the prison camps, comb through the state archives, and freely interview those at all levels of society.”
Veteran Asia correspondent Donald Kirk, who has provided commentary on the North for Al Jazeera, Forbes and the Asia Times, among others, also sees no change on the horizon, in either the North’s human rights record or its press freedom.
‘If there were minimal respect for human rights, would there be minimal press freedom? Or if minimal press freedom, then would minimal respect for human rights become possible? They all go together’
“Of course, the lack of press freedom absolutely enables the other transgressions and violations of all human rights,” he said. “It’s all part of the same syndrome. North Korea has zero press freedom and zero respect for human rights.
“It would be difficult to know which would come first, though. If there were minimal respect for human rights, would there be minimal press freedom? Or if minimal press freedom, then would minimal respect for human rights become possible? They all go together.”
IS THE AP HELPING?
International press relations with the North appeared to be taking a turn for the better starting in early 2012 when the Associated Press opened its first bureau in Pyongyang – the first such Western news agency to establish a Pyongyang branch. The UN COI said that this is an example of “liberalization” of the North’s stance toward the press, but noted that its effect had been limited.
“A foreign correspondent (who is part of a small team of AP journalists who are allowed to visit the DPRK on a regular basis) spoke of having a minder accompanying him at all times during field visits,” the report said. “Attempting to evade the minder was not possible as the journalist would have had their visa revoked in response. Requests to view certain events or locations not already planned by the authorities are usually declined. Official permission is also required for ordinary citizens to meet foreigners.”
Joshua Stanton, a lawyer, blogger and outspoken critic of the North, has at times also criticized the AP’s role in the past. However, he said that the agency’s performance has been “nuanced” recently and did not uniformly criticize it when speaking with NK News.
‘(The AP) show little interest in pursuing newsworthy stories that might portray the regime in a bad light, such as allegations of mass arrests and executions in Pyongyang, or reports of a repressive crackdown in the provinces’
“(The) AP certainly isn’t producing much ground-breaking journalism from North Korea, but they haven’t produced anything atrocious since Eric Talmadge became their Pyongyang bureau chief,” he said. “Talmadge and Tim Sullivan try to be objective about the stories they cover. They don’t echo the state’s propaganda or present a narrow selection of elite lifestyles in Pyongyang as representative of North Korea as a whole … All of this is a change for the better.”
However, he was critical of their “story selection,” saying it showed a tendency to avoid coverage that might jeopardize their relationship with the regime.
“They show little interest in pursuing newsworthy stories that might portray the regime in a bad light, such as allegations of mass arrests and executions in Pyongyang, or reports of a repressive crackdown in the provinces,” he said. “Last summer, some Western news outlets reported that nine orphans repatriated from Laos were executed. Those would be big stories in any other country, and they deserved to be big stories in North Korea, too.”
‘What I know is that (the) AP is not operating its bureau like its other bureaus around the world. Some call that a (compromise), some say it’s a good first step’
Ismaïl said that evaluating the performance of individual news sources in a given country was not part of RWB’s mandate, but nonetheless offered an assessment of the AP Pyongyang bureau’s performance.
“What I know is that (the) AP is not operating its bureau like its other bureaus around the world,” he said. “Some call that a (compromise), some say it’s a good first step.
“For my part, AP Pyongyang doesn’t provide the kind of information I am looking for, but there (were) in the past very good reports by other neighbor bureaus (in Seoul or Beijing) … that might have been fed by AP Pyongyang.”
Jean Lee, who led the AP’s coverage of the Korean Peninsula between 2008 and 2013, and opened the Pyongyang bureau in 2012, acknowledged the differences in covering the North as compared to other countries, as well as the country’s “glacial” progress.
“North Korea has a vast set of rules designed to limit interaction between locals and foreigners,” she said. “For example, I pop a North Korean SIM card into (my) iPhone that allows me to call other foreigners – but not North Koreans. It has to be the only bureau where AP staff members can’t communicate with one another by cellphone, which makes for yet one more logistical challenge in a country that is already hard to work in.”
However, she said that the AP’s presence in the North is gradually causing change, as it shows how journalism is conducted in the West.
“That undoubtedly will have an effect on how they think about news and news coverage of their country at home and abroad,” she said.
Lee, who is currently on fellowship leave while continuing reporting on North Korea for the Alicia Patterson Foundation, had several examples of coverage she had been allowed to do in recent years that had broken new ground.
‘The more foreign journalists working in Pyongyang prove to the North Koreans that there’s a benefit to giving us access, the better the chances of other foreign correspondents gaining access that will help improve coverage of North Korea overall’
These included going into a closed political meeting to see how North Korean leader Kim Jong Un interacts with top officials, as well as inside factories, Pyongyang’s Mansudae military academy and several homes nationwide.
“Since then, the small foreign press corps in Pyongyang has been allowed into similar events, which is an important step toward unlocking the mystery of how the regime operates,” she said. “The more foreign journalists working in Pyongyang prove to the North Koreans that there’s a benefit to giving us access, the better the chances of other foreign correspondents gaining access that will help improve coverage of North Korea overall.”
Picture: Eric Lafforgue