Press Freedom – or not – in Asia


Part 3: North Korean journalists re-educated for misspelling of top officials’ names

SEOUL—North Korea has come in once more at the bottom of a worldwide survey on press freedom. It is a country where journalists can find themselves in labor camps if they cause official displeasure, or be sent for political re-education for misspelling the names of key figures.

“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,” Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said in a statement.

“The regime continues to feed the population the same mind-numbing propaganda.”

“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,” RSF said in a statement on the release of its North Korea report, “Journalism in the service of a totalitarian dictatorship.”

‘Disappeared’ reporter

At least 40 journalists have been “revolutionized,” or re-educated, for such “journalistic errors” as misspelling a senior official’s name, the report found.

Others—such as television journalist Song Keum Chul, who disappeared in 1996 for questioning the official version of certain historic events—are sent to concentration camps where some 200,000 North Koreans are held, RSF said.

“The only nongovernmental 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,” the statement said.

Radio lifeline

RFA doubled its Korean-language broadcasts to North Korea at the beginning of 2003 in response to escalating nuclear tensions on the Korean Peninsula, from two to four hours daily.

At the end of 2003, Pyongyang launched a campaign to check radio sets, which have been designated as the “regime’s new enemies.”

Radio sets, which are fixed to state-run channels, must now be registered with the authorities, and North Koreans found with unregistered radios have been sent to concentration camps.

But North Koreans continue to use their ingenuity to listen to news from foreign broadcasters, often registering one radio set but keeping another in reserve. In a 2001 survey, six out of 12 North Korean refugees said they had listened to Radio Free Asia’s Korean-language programs, compared with just one out of 12 in 1999.

Next story: Part 4: Hong Kong Radio Host Says He Was Offered Money for Silence


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