Iran and North Korea should immediately free journalists who are being used as apparent political hostages in their wider diplomatic disputes with the United States, the International Press Institute said today.
The sentencing of an Iranian-American radio reporter on espionage charges last week and the continued detention of two American journalists who were seized in North Korea in March further erode chances for diplomatic settlements over the nations’ nuclear ambitions and only augment their reputations as leading suppressers of free speech.
“It is beyond contempt that these journalists are being held hostage to the fortunes of political brinkmanship by countries who share an outdated belief that this is the best way to conduct negotiations on difficult international subjects”, IPI Director David Dadge said. “Journalists are neutral observers who gather information. Accusing them of being spies is just another desperate way for authoritarian rulers to smother the truth and delude their populations”.
On 18 April, an Iranian court sentenced Roxana Saberi to eight years in prison for espionage after a one-day, secret trial. The US-born reporter was arrested in February, allegedly for buying wine. Saberi, a free-lance journalist, has filed reports on Iran for public broadcasters in Britain and the United States and also worked for the Fox News channel in the United States.
The two journalists detained for entering North Korea from across the Chinese border have been identified as Euna Lee and Laura Ling of US-based Current TV. They were captured on 17 March while apparently preparing a report on the rising number of North Koreans who are seeking refuge in China. Leaders in Pyongyang have been silent on the detention of the women since their capture.
The sentencing of Saberi comes after years of tensions between Tehran and Washington over Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s push to develop a nuclear energy industry that the United States, Europe and Israel contend is a mask for building atomic weapons. Since President Barack Obama took office in January, he has reversed his predecessor’s policy of shunning talks with Tehran, but the Iranian government has so far shown little interest in making concessions on the nuclear issue.
IPI’s Justice Denied Campaign has also condemned the Ahmadinejad government’s handling of Abdolvahed Botimar, a journalist and environmental activist, and his cousin, editor and journalist Adnan Hassanpour, who were tried in secret and accused of being “enemies of God”. Both men were sentenced to death, but in September 2008, a court of appeal overturned the death sentence against Hassanpour. He was then charged with espionage.
North Korea, meanwhile, has intensified its isolation by launching a missile over Japan and expelling international experts who were sent to monitor the country’s nuclear experiments. According to IPI’s World Press Freedom Review 2008, North Korea has the worst press freedom record in the world, with the country’s repressive dictatorship retaining complete control of the media while maintaining a blanket ban on foreign journalists.