Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


More vigils planned for journalists detained in North Korea

By Jamie Loo
Press suppression on an upward trend, expert says.

By Jamie Loo
Freedom Museum reporter

CHICAGO— After more than two months in jail, two American journalists will be facing trial in North Korea next week, at a time when international tensions with the country are growing over missiles testing.

Laura Ling and Euna Lee, journalists from San Francisco-based Current TV, were arrested near the North Korean border on March 17 while reporting on refugees living in China, according to the Associated Press. The journalists from the cable television and online company, which former vice-president Al Gore is the co-founder and chairman of, have been accused by North Korean officials of illegal entry and committing “hostile acts.” The two are awaiting trial on June 4 on these unspecified charges, which according to the AP could carry up to 10 years in prison.

Media reports have speculated that Lee and Ling are being detained as pawns in the political games North Korea is playing with other countries on issues such as nuclear firearms. North Korea’s latest test-firing of missiles on Monday and Tuesday drew criticism from the international community, including China and Russia which have traditionally been the country’s allies.

Vigils are being planned in U.S. cities such as Washington D.C. and San Francisco on June 3, which is June 4 in North Korea, to raise awareness about the journalists’ imprisonment. Last week vigils were held in Los Angeles, New York, Orlando, Portland and in Chicago on Daley Plaza.

Speakers at the Chicago vigil spoke about the importance of press freedom throughout the world and urged people to contact their elected officials and the media to raise awareness about this case. Organizers handed out 200 yellow carnations with photos of Lee and Ling tied to them and asked people to write messages of support on a banner to send to their families.

Committee to Protect Journalists deputy director Robert Mahoney said publicity for this case hasn’t been widespread and he isn’t sure what effect public pressure will have on the situation. Mahoney said there is a lot of speculation about why Lee and Ling are being detained, and he fears it may be part of a misguided attempt by North Korea to resolve issues with the U.S. in the Korean peninsula. Journalists are sometimes kidnapped as political bargaining chips, he said, but that it doesn’t happen every day. Bruce Cumings, chair of the history department at the University of Chicago, said public pressure for the journalists’ release may work but that if it does, North Korea would never admit that it played a role.

“This case is really about pressuring (President Barack) Obama to pay attention to North Korea,” Cumings said.

The political pressure points in each country are different, Mahoney said, and in the case of Roxana Saberi, public and diplomatic pressure made a difference. Saberi, a journalist accused of spying, was detained in Iran and released on May 18. He said it’s difficult to compare Iran to North Korea because Iran is a more open country, has a judiciary system and is more responsive to political pressure. The strategies used for the release of detained journalists vary, Mahoney said, and are based on the wishes of their families, media outlets, situation in the country they’re being held in and who is detaining them. Generally, some families and media outlets choose not to go public about detained or kidnapped journalists because of safety and other diplomatic concerns.

Chicago ties

Nancy Loo, co-president of the Asian American Journalists Association- Chicago, read a letter from television journalist Lisa Ling on behalf of the Lee and Ling families at the vigil. Lisa is Laura’s sister and lived in Chicago before moving to L.A. in 2007.

“We know that our government is working very hard to secure their release, but given the sensitivity of the situation and the fact that our two countries have no diplomatic relationship, our families are not making any public comments other than to thank you so very much for coming out to support our girls,” the letter read.

Alex Castro, a journalist who worked with Laura Ling in L.A., said Laura has “always been passionate about helping people” and that she is going to be deeply moved when she finds out about the outpouring of support for her and Lee.

Richie Porter, a representative from Sen. Roland Burris’ office, said U.S. residents rely on the work of journalists overseas to keep people informed about international affairs and that the congressman hopes for Lee and Ling’s safe return. Asian American Bar Association president Anne Shaw said there are human rights violations occurring all over the world that we don’t know about. She said journalists like Ling and Lee are needed to shed the light on these issues.

“Every day journalists from free countries risk their lives to tell the truth,” said local journalist Joanie Lum.

Lum said change can happen when the public begins to ask questions, gets the media involved and reaches out to public officials. Lee and Ling cannot be forgotten, she said, and the more attention the case receives the more everyone can help their cause.

Press freedom ‘fragile’

Because the U.S. doesn’t have diplomatic ties with North Korea, the U.S. Department of State is working through the Swedish ambassador to the country. The ambassador’s last visit with the journalists was on March 30. Mahoney said it’s not clear what charges the two journalists are being held on and that there is no information on whether they will have due process or legal representation before a North Korean court. North Korea has no independent press, he said, and is one of the most heavily censored countries in the world. Mahoney said any news the international community receives about the trial will come from state-controlled media in the country.

Press freedom around the world has eroded over the past decade, Mahoney said, and following the Sept. 11 attacks more countries began using national security and terrorism concerns as reasons to jail journalists. Freedom House, which also publishes an annual index on global media independence, reported that only 17 percent of the world’s population lives in countries with a free press. In 2000, CPJ reported that 81 journalists were imprisoned worldwide and by the end of 2001 Mahoney said that figure jumped to 137. CPJ has documented at least 125 journalists who are currently being detained worldwide.

The rise of the Internet is also a contributing factor to press suppression, Mahoney said, because it has given a voice to people in countries with limited free press. He said 2008 was the first time the number of online journalists imprisoned worldwide exceeded journalists from more traditional mediums.

“Press freedom is a fragile thing and it needs a lot more defense,” he said.

On the Web:
Facebook., group: Detained In North Korea: Journalist Laura Ling and Euna Lee, please help
Committee to Protect Journalists,
Freedom House,


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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