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Helen Chang: Don’t call Lee and Ling heroines

23 August 2009 No Comment

By Helen Kaiao Chang

See original story on SDNN

Friday, August 7, 2009

Many people are elated about the return of U.S. journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling from North Korea, after former president Bill Clinton secured their release.

Certainly their family members are overjoyed and relieved. In one photo, Euna Lee is crying while hugging her husband and four-year-old daughter.

You would think that I might be overjoyed, too, especially since I’m Asian American, a woman and a journalist.

Well, I’m happy for them. But not entirely.

On a humanitarian level, yes. They are now home safe with their families.

But on a professional level, no. I don’t have all the facts, but based on what I’ve read, it seems to me that they were hapless or irresponsible for going in there in the first place.

Ling and Lee were arrested along the China-North Korea border, while reporting for Current TV, a Web-based channel founded by former U.S. vice president Al Gore. The two journalists were working on a story about North Korean refugees in China, when they were arrested by North Korean border guards.

In June, they were sentenced by North Korean officials to 12 years hard labor for entering illegally and performing “hostile acts.” This week, they were released, after former U.S. president Bill Clinton visited North Korean president Kim Jong Il.

In the U.S., Lee and Ling’s advocates have said the two U.S. journalists were there in the name of “freedom of speech” and “exposing the truth” about North Korea’s harsh treatment of women and children. They deserved to be released.

I believe there is merit to the story they were covering. But the fact remains that they entered another country without permission.

Illegal visitors

Everyday, thousands of people cross into the United States without permission. We call them illegal immigrants. Wetbacks. We throw them in jail, build border fences, deny them health care and penalize those who house them. And we send them back to their countries.

We do not hold them up as heroes or heroines for pursuing their dreams, even though they are exercising the U.S. Constitutional ideal of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” After all, they are not citizens, and therefore do not have the same rights.

Why should other countries do the same for our citizens?

Yes, 12 years hard labor is a cruel and unusual punishment. But it is not our place to decide. North Korea is a sovereign country with its own laws. Their leaders are free to mete out sentences as they see fit.

In other Asian countries, foreigners are put to death for trafficking drugs. There is often no leniency, despite their country’s diplomatic efforts. When you are in another country, you have to respect their laws.

Lee and Ling were not innocent bystanders in this event. They knew the risks they were taking before they went. In a vigil held for them in San Diego after they were arrested, the organizers showed a documentary film made by Jung-Eun Kim, who supposedly “risked her life” to tell the story about North Korean children.

It was reported that Lee and Ling consulted with her before they went on their trip. So they knew their own lives would be at risk. Yet they chose to go.

Unintentional crossing

Ling’s sister, Lisa Ling — a high-profile journalist in her own right — reportedly said that the two women never intended to cross into North Korea. It was an accident.

Yet military officers repeatedly warned the journalists not to go near the border region, it was reported.

And the border is a river between China and North Korea, sort of like the Rio Grande between the U.S. and Mexico. I may not have all the right facts yet, but I wonder, how do you “unintentionally” cross to the other side of a river?

The last time I checked, China was still a communist country that throws dissidents in jail, including journalists. Did the two honestly think that by staying on the Chinese side they would be safe?

If Lee and Ling were willing to take the risks and leave their families behind to go on this trip, then they needed to be prepared to face the consequences. They were lucky they had high level diplomats to bail them out, arranged no doubt by their boss Al Gore.

But they could not have expected it. They were lucky Bill Clinton stepped in to save them.

Local journalists

Not all journalists are so lucky.

When I worked as a news journalist in Southeast Asia in the ’90s, all foreign reporters had to apply for government media licenses, which were renewed every year. Our phones were routinely tapped, mail opened, and journalists who wrote about unflattering topics were warned by authorities, had their licenses revoked or, in some dramatic cases, were thrown in jail.

Even some U.S. publications I worked for had lawyers check controversial stories, to make sure the publication would not get banned in certain countries.

These were the risks we as journalists knew we were taking. We were careful to give balanced coverage on stories, and we knew how to take calculated risks.

But those who I came to respect the most were the local journalists. These were journalists who could not get out of a country, because they did not have anywhere else to go. They did not have First Amendment Rights or Sunshine Laws. They could not have fair trials. They did not have a Bill Clinton or Al Gore to bail them out if they got in trouble.

Such local journalists are not foreign parachute journalists, who only drop in for big stories. They are not martyrs, who make big media splashes about the injustices they are writing about. They are regular, everyday citizens in the countries they live in, under strict government regimes, doing the best they can to make a difference.

Yet many such local journalists continue to write thought-provoking pieces that quietly and gently pushed the system for change. In one Asian country, a journalist even predicted his own death by those who would rather have him silenced. To me, that takes true courage.

Freedom of speech

After having worked as a journalist in Asia, I believe more strongly in the principles our country was founded upon: the right to freedom of speech, no tyranny of the majority, the right to remain silent, and fair and open trial by jury.

I have great respect for the journalists before me who fought for our rights in the U.S. in this tradition, I actively participate in professional industry groups that promote journalists’ rights and freedom of speech, as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

But these are rights American journalists have fought for on American sovereign soil. I don’t believe we have the right to expect these kinds of freedoms in other countries, more so North Korea.

Honorable intentions

I’m sure Lee and Ling had honorable intentions. The story they were pursuing is a good story. But let’s not turn them into martyrs.

Lee and Ling will no doubt emerge stronger from this incident. They will be offered lucrative book deals, speaking engagements and maybe even movie rights.

They will be upheld as heroines for having the courage to go after such a difficult story, enduring harsh prison conditions, and finally making it home.

But to me, Lee and Ling are another Yankee-overseas story.

The foreign journalists who don’t have a Bill Clinton are the true heroes and heroines. These are the ones who work under harsh conditions, yet risk their lives daily to tell honest stories in their own countries.

These are the journalists I salute.

Follow Helen on Twitter @HelenChang.

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