For the past three years, North Korea has come last in the Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières) worldwide ranking of countries by respect for press freedom. Yet, amid an international crisis linked to Pyongyang’s intransigence about its nuclear military programme, some observers have seen a cautious opening. Some international news media have even talked of a "Pyongyang spring." What does this mean for press freedom?
The information gathered from former North Korean journalists and from South Korean and international experts during a Reporters Without Borders fact-finding mission to South Korea shows there have been no positive changes for the news media, which are all controlled by the single party and, some say, by Kim Jong-il in person. The word "reform" has indeed been used very occasionally by the media, but the regime continues to feed the population the same mind-numbing propaganda.
Journalists are press-ganged by the party into implementing a "permanent information plan," which sets a strict hierarchy for media work. The first priority is publicising the greatness of Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il. Then comes demonstrating the superiority of North Korean socialism, denouncing imperialist and bourgeois corruption, and criticising the invasion instinct of the imperialists and Japanese.
In this report, entitled "Journalism in the service of a totalitarian dictatorship," Reporters Without Borders reveals that at least 40 journalists have been "revolutionized," that is to say re-educated, for such "journalistic errors" as misspelling a senior official’s name. Others have been sent to concentration camps where some 200,000 North Koreans are held. This is what happened to TV journalist Song Keum Chul, who disappeared in 1996 for questioning the official version of certain historic events.
The only non-governmental news sources are foreign-language radio stations which broadcast in the Korean language. But radio and TV sets in North Korea are pre-set and blocked to State media frequencies and those who listen to foreign radio stations risk imprisonment. At the end of 2003, the party launched a campaign to check radio sets, which have been designated as the "regime’s new enemies."
Reporters Without Borders calls on the international community to focus on the need for respect for the right of North Koreans to diverse news and information.
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