By Chad 0’Carroll
Last week the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released a report which put Eritrea as the world’s leading censor of the media. Eritrea sat on top of a list of ten countries which CPJ said had “dictatorial controls” on domestic media, followed closely by North Korea, Syria and Iran. North Korea, which was long regarded as worse than Eritrea when it came to press freedom, seems to have improved its standing since the CJP’s last report in 2006. The improvement is also reflected in the work of Reporters Without Borders, who now rank North Korea as second to last when it comes to this year’s Press Freedom Index. While there is still huge room for improvement, the shift is somewhat notable. But what is behind this change? Have things actually gotten better in North Korea or is the situation in Eritrea so bad now that North Korea’s position had to improve, albeit relatively?
Although Eritrea surfaces in the news a lot less than North Korea, there is no doubt that the dictatorship of Isaias Afewerki has done much to limit press freedom. Having seized power in 1993, Afewerki promised elections to take place in 1997, but in the end they never happened. Fast forward to 2001 and responding to criticism from the private press about the lack of elections, Afewerki ordered the closure of all independent media and expelled all foreign journalists. Since 2001 there has been not one single foreign correspondent based in the country, with the case of Swedish correspondent Dawit Isaak, imprisoned for over a decade now, underlining the harsh conditions foreign journalists face in reporting on the country.
With media restricted now to three state-run newspapers, three radio stations and two television stations, the government controls nearly all media in Eritrea. Internet access is theoretically available but is highly monitored, with all foreign news sites blocked. And while satellite TV is possible, only the affluent can afford the dishes required to receive outside broadcasts. In this environment even state media officials fear for their safety, and in 2009 the entire staff of Radio Bana, a small radio station based in the capital city that put out educational programs under the sponsorship of the education ministry, were all arrested without explanation. As such in this environment it is not hard to understand why even government employed journalists regularly flee the country, fearful of provoking the wrath of their government employers.
From looking at the above facts, it looks clear that the situation in Eritrea has worsened significantly over the past decade or so. But have things really improved in North Korea, or did Eritrea’s situation become so dire that the CJP authors had little choice but to elevate the DPRK, even though little had changed? In answering this question one must consider two factors; the internal and the external.
Internally there is not much evidence that the media environment of North Korea has changed much over the past decade. Citizens of the DPRK still receive nothing but state run media, forming principally of one nationwide TV station, three radio stations, and five newspapers. TVs and radios must be specially modified to receive only state authorized stations, and jamming is commonplace along the border areas. The internet continues to be banned for almost all citizens, but a highly controlled intranet system known as “Kwangmyong” has surfaced in recent years. All North Korean media outlets continue to serve the government as both propaganda outlets and censors – only news and information that can be used to help bolster regime credentials or undermine adversaries is published. Whether or not there is the same degree of repression for government journalists as in Eritrea is unknown in North Korea, where it would be almost unthinkable to challenge the leadership in any media.
While nothing has changed in North Korea’s government run internal media environment, there has nevertheless been a “quiet opening” as far as the reach of foreign media is concerned. New communications technologies have opened the country up to foreign news, information, and entertainment, through the import of DVDs, USB sticks, cell phones and radios. Recent research suggests that up to 48% of the population has viewed a foreign DVD, while foreign radio broadcasts are increasing in reach and helping to shape citizens’ views of the outside world more than ever before. The changes in how foreign media are handled marks a stark change to over a decade ago, when punishments for watching foreign DVDs or listening to illegal radio broadcasts were harshly punished as a matter of course, and when communications technologies had not evolved to the point of facilitating easy and clandestine distribution. But it is nevertheless important to remember that this development does not come with the blessing of the state.
Externally, North Korea does appear to have made some basic progress regarding improving its outward-facing media environment. Unlike Eritrea, North Korea has for many decades allowed foreign media to operate bureaus in Pyongyang, although for long this had been restricted mainly to “friendly” countries like Russia or China. However, with the opening of an Associated Press bureau in January 2012, headed by experienced journalist Jean H. Lee, Pyongyang appears to opening to Western media in ways not seen until this year. AP now partners with KCNA and at their Pyongyang bureau both international and local journalists work side-by-side. As of yet the international reporters rely on North Korean officials to escort them around the country, which has sparked some strong debate about AP’s degree of reporting freedom. Joshua Stanton has spear-headed this criticism, blogging about his concerns several times over the past few months. However, in a recent interview with KoreAm, office Director Jean H. Lee countered this criticism, explaining that her team is neither censored nor told what to write about. Whatever the reality, the presence of AP has led to some interesting new coverage from North Korea and Tweeting from Pyongyang that would have been unthinkable just a year ago. As such, in this author’s opinion it makes a welcome addition to the North Korea media environment, and one that with hope will lead to increased transparency in the traditionally closed off state.
The improvements in press freedom in North Korea are small, but should nevertheless be welcomed and do justify its small but noticeable improvement in international rankings. For its part, the situation in Eritrea has clearly become extremely dire and more attention should be focused on highlighting the brutal conditions imposed by President Afewerki. While North Korea continues to regularly feature on international news broadcasts, the plight of millions of Eritreans is more or less left ignored by Western media. Arguably, this is related to North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons – so Eritrea’s new position as worst ranking in press freedom should be welcomed, helping cast much needed light on the countries dire situation.
Chad 0’Carroll is the Director of Communications for the Korea Economic Institute. The views represented here are his own.