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North Korea 27 April 2004

Reporters Without Borders calls for international press to be allowed to report from Ryongchon

Reporters without Borders has said it is shocked by the stance of the North Korean authorities which have refused to allow journalists to report from the scene of the explosion of two trains at Ryongchon station, North Korea.

It has written to the head of the North Korean permanent mission in Geneva, urging him to let the international press through to the scene of the accident.

Pyongyang was also refusing to give precise information to aid organisations, the international press freedom organisation protested. It was only releasing information about the scale of the catastrophe in dribs and drabs, with complete disregard for the victims.

North Korea took two days to officially admit that an explosion on 22 April had devastated a neighbourhood around Ryongchon station. The news was broken on the day of the accident by the South Korean press.

Pyongyang declared a state of emergency in the town but at first gave out information minimising the extent of the accident. Although hundreds maybe even thousands of people had been killed and at least 30,000 inhabitants of Ryongchon reportedly "affected", aid organisations had to wait several days to get access to the area.

A representative from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) complained that the information given was "insufficient".

The dozens of foreign journalists who travelled to the Chinese town of Dandong on the North Korean border were not allowed into Ryongchon. Some correspondents said the residents of the border zone were too afraid to speak to them about the accident. There were no articles about the explosion in the local press in Dandong.

The English version of the website of the official KCNA news agency put out the occasional article about the victims of the accident. However numerous solidarity messages sent by foreign governments to Kim Jong-il were prominently displayed.

Reporters Without Borders has ranked North Korea as the worst country in the world for press freedom for two successive years. In its 2003 annual report, the organisation wrote: " All the news media in North Korea were mouthpieces of the regime and lavished extensive praise on Chairman Kim Jong Il. The TV news programmes consisted largely of footage of the dictator visiting new companies or attending opening ceremonies, accompanied by lyrical comments on the greatness of Kim Il Sung’s son and successor. Three subjects absorbed the attention of the print media, radio and TV: the personality of Kim Jong Il, praise of the army, and criticism of the country’s foes, especially South Korea, the United States and Japan. Those running the news media, including the editor of Rodong Shinmun (Labour Daily), the chairman of the Korean Central News Agency and the directors of the state TV broadcaster, were all senior members of the party central committee and came under Kim’s direct supervision.

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