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Foreign reporters and the risks they run

Journalists sometimes need to make dangerous decisions in order to cover events in repressive regimes that fear independent voices threaten their rule and reputations.

September 04, 2009|Jean-Francois Julliard | Jean-Francois Julliard is secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based media advocacy group.

The arrest and eventual release of Current TV journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee by North Korea, and recent reports of North Korean and Chinese authorities cracking down on refugee networks, have renewed the public debate over how far foreign journalists should go in covering repressive nations.

The leaders of countries such as Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), China, North Korea and Zimbabwe restrict foreign media access, fearing that independent interpretations of their policies and actions will threaten their rule at home and damage their reputations abroad.

In order to suppress news that reflects poorly on their regimes, these nations create elaborate surveillance networks to monitor foreign journalists as well as local dissidents who might assist reporters in gathering information. Journalists who travel to these countries essentially become unofficial international representatives to the local population, openly presenting and discussing views that government officials have attempted to forcibly silence.

Needless to say, challenging a regime's control over information in such a manner is extremely dangerous for both journalists and their local contacts. They must balance the safety concerns for reporters and the dissidents assisting them with the need for public awareness on issues suppressed by authoritarian governments. Unfortunately, these are risks that reporters and the citizens of repressive regimes have to take on a regular basis if there is to be any chance of creating dialogue that can foster significant change.

The alternative is to remain complacent and content to ignore important realities of human suffering in the world. Ling and Lee chose to take a risk to expose the human smuggling issue at the Chinese-North Korean border, and to show the work of agencies working on the spot to help the victims. The issue is not that they were reckless in their work but that they were up against possibly corrupt local interests and a repressive regime intent on seeing that the story does not get out.

The circumstances surrounding their arrest raise serious questions as to what extent Chinese provincial authorities and North Korean border security guards may have colluded to prevent Lee and Ling from getting a story that reflects poorly on local authorities on both sides of the border.

North Korea is in a class of its own when it comes to controlling access to information. It is a place where listening to a foreign radio station can land you in a labor camp for several years, and trying to make a phone call to the outside world can reportedly lead to execution. Visas for foreign journalists and tourists are seldom issued, and when they are, visitors are taken on government tours where they are not allowed to leave the sight of their escorts or to speak to the local people.

Most people will agree that, in its most idealized form, the role of a journalist is to be a neutral observer of the events that mark our times. While this might be a naive view of the media, it is difficult to argue against the fact that, in one way or another, journalists play a substantial role in developing our understanding of the world.

In the United States and Europe, we automatically expect access to information, no matter how mundane or important it might be. We have put this ideal in our constitutions and laws, and we constantly try to ensure that it is upheld in order to preserve transparency and accountability. But our dependence on the media also underscores the importance of having a variety of perspectives that are not necessarily those of the ruling classes. This, of course, is the very issue at stake when discussing whether or not journalists need to take the risks involved in covering repressive countries.

When New York Times reporter Barry Bearak entered Zimbabwe on a tourist visa in 2008, he did so because it was the only way he could cover an election that turned out to be an astounding example of political corruption and intimidation. Bearak was discovered and jailed for five days for entering without proper accreditation.

Andrew Marshall, a freelancer for Time magazine, entered Myanmar in 2008 on a tourist visa in order to report on the destruction caused by Cyclone Nargis and the state of the relief effort. At the time, Myanmar had closed its border to journalists and aid workers, fearing that news of its inadequate response to the humanitarian crisis would further embolden a population that had already begun challenging the state. Marshall was able to cover some of the hardest-hit areas before being detained and deported.

By entering Zimbabwe and Myanmar under false pretenses, both journalists were able to offer us insight that would never have been available otherwise. Taking those risks in order to raise awareness and hold governments accountable for their actions is something journalists have to do if we, the public, hope to have any real knowledge about the day-to-day lives of millions of people around the globe.

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