TOPICS > Politics

Q&A: Director of Committee to Protect Journalists Discusses Reporter Detentions

BY Talea Miller  August 5, 2009 at 12:00 PM EST

Former Vice President Gore with freed reporters Ling and Lee; AFP/Getty

About how many journalists are being detained around the world?

We do an annual census of journalists jailed around the world. The last time we did it was in December of 2008 and at that time there were slightly more than 130 journalists in jail around the world. But subsequently there’s been this crackdown in Iran following the disputed elections there and Iran has now become the world’s leading jailer of journalists with 40 journalists in jail and something like 35 of them arrested after the election.

With that increase we are well over 150 journalists in jail all over the world, the vast majority of them, nearly all of them, are journalists working in their own countries imprisoned by their own governments.

How many international journalists are currently being detained?

Usually at any given moment it’s a handful. One that comes to mind is Maziar Bahari, he is the Newsweek correspondent who’s one of the 40 journalists imprisoned in Iran. He’s a dual Canadian-Iranian national and the Iranians don’t recognize dual citizenship at all. But the Canadian government is certainly concerned about his arrest and detention as is Newsweek, his employer.

How was the Euna Lee and Laura Ling case different from detained reporter cases seen in the past?

The fundamental difference is just how repressive and isolated North Korea is. The mere fact that the North Koreans believed that they entered North Korean territory was enough to not only get them arrested, but to get them sentenced to 12 years of hard labor, which is an extraordinarily harsh sentence.

Why was such a high level of diplomatic action necessary?

It’s because there was no other alternative really. A country like North Korea is just not responsive to the same kinds of tactics and pressures that you would normally apply. They are just so isolated from the international community. It seemed like the only way to win the release of these two journalists was to send some kind of envoy and that’s what happened.

Does this case, and North Korea using two reporters to secure a visit from former President Clinton, set a precedent that could be dangerous for reporters?

Journalists are used as bargaining chips in all sorts of situations. It does concern us but it’s the reality that international journalists move around in these dangerous areas and they are vulnerable to this kind of pressure and if they are taken prisoner it’s often precisely what these governments seek-the ability to use these journalists as bargaining chips, and it certainly increases the danger for journalists working in these places.

Does the U.S. have a policy as to which governments they are willing to negotiate with over detained reporters?

Certainly whenever a journalist is detained by a government, any government, the U.S. seeks to engage that government diplomatically and if they don’t have diplomatic relations, as in the case of Iran or North Korea, they work through what ever avenues are available. For example Lee and Ling were visited by the Swedish ambassador who represents U.S. interests in North Korea, the Swiss have been active in Iran, there are three journalists/hikers currently in Iranian custody there and I believe the Swiss have sought access in representing U.S. interests.

Is there a difference between what domestic journalists are usually arrested for versus foreign journalists?

Usually domestic journalists are arrested on state security charges, or sometimes contempt or criminal defamation, something in violation of domestic law.

Most international journalists, when the governments don’t like what they are doing they are expelled. We saw that in Iran recently where the Iranian government invited the international press to cover the elections, but when the story turned out to be different than the one they expected they told them to leave.

When international journalists are arrested they are usually charged with things like entering the country illegally or in the worst case scenario, espionage.

What are the legal options for journalists when they are detained in foreign countries?

It varies tremendously depending on the country, depending on whether there are actual legal processes that allow them to challenge, in a more or less neutral legal venue. In a place like Cuba, which is just behind China as one of the world’s leading jailers of journalists, the journalists that are in jail there-20 something journalists-were given these show trials.

Most of them were arrested in a broad crackdown in 2003, sentenced to very long prison sentences. They had no opportunity to defend themselves or challenge the charges against them. The best hope there is to highlight those cases to make sure that people around the world are aware of this record and aware that these individuals are in jail, and to confront the Cuban government and to call for their release. We’ve seen that tactic work in some instances.

For journalists arrested within their own country, are their chances of getting released worse?

It’s rare, not unprecedented, but rare, that international journalists are held for a longer period [than several months], but local journalists held in their own countries are held for years. There is a journalist in China, who is the longest held journalist, who I believe has been in jail for about 20 years. So some of these sentences are incredibly long, incredibly harsh and these governments sometimes are determined to see that these journalists serve those long sentences.