“Euna and I are two of the lucky ones whose story of captivity resulted in a happy ending. But there are so many journalists imprisoned around the world whose fate is still undecided. It is my sincere hope that the energy ignited around bringing us home will be harnessed into raising awareness around these fellow journalists and their struggle for freedom.” ~Laura Ling
UPDATE: Laura Ling and Euna Lee released a statement on September 1st, 2009 about their capture that was published both on CurrentTv’s website and as an op-ed in The Los Angeles Times: “When we set out, we had no intention of leaving China, but when our guide beckoned for us to follow him beyond the middle of the river, we did, eventually arriving at the riverbank on the North Korean side [...] We were firmly back inside China when the soldiers apprehended us. Producer Mitch Koss and our guide were both able to outrun the border guards. We were not. We tried with all our might to cling to bushes, ground, anything that would keep us on Chinese soil, but we were no match for the determined soldiers. They violently dragged us back across the ice to North Korea and marched us to a nearby army base, where we were detained.”
I have been wracking my brain trying to figure out what to write in response to the return of Laura Ling and Euna Lee to their homes and families. All of us watching and waiting with bated breath, sending and re-sending Twitter messages, signing petitions, refreshing news feeds…we all waited for that moment when they descended from the plane, and Euna swept little Hana into her arms and Laura ran into the arms of her husband. I can’t tell you the relief and joy I felt, as I’m sure you all felt, watching that reunion of friends and family, and watching the restrained pride on the faces of President Clinton and Mr. Gore. It’s damn nice to see the good guys win.
I was less patient than I should have been. I was less patient with the media, the extraordinary American press of which Laura and Euna are both members, than I should have been. Weeks went by when Lisa Ling and her family attended candlelight vigils and we heard nothing, nothing from the press and nothing from Washington. There seemed to be a particular gag order that was afflicting CurrentTV, the San Francisco-based independent media company for which Laura and Euna work, and for which they were on assignment in China when they were taken. A lot of us got very angry very quickly, and with the blessing of hindsight that is 20/20, I realize now that I should have known that there was more going on behind the scenes, that sometimes international relations require calculation and calm, and that our waiting would pay off.
There’s an incredible irony in the fact that such great silence was necessary to prevent two of our press agents from being silenced permanently. It’s that necessity that made me hesitant to write this, and makes me wonder just how strategic we need to be in the days ahead…because “the girls,” as they were so lovingly (and strategically—it wasn’t lost on me that Lisa Ling and others who spoke on their behalf did their best to make them seem vulnerable and harmless) called during their time away from us, are home now, but the tenuous relationship with North Korea remains. America and her allies still have journalists doing work in South Korea and in China, and if we aren’t careful, there might be a next time—and we might not be so lucky next time.
The media’s reporting of their return remained cautious and strategic, even after the girls were in the air, even after they were home. Dan Abrams, Chief Legal Analyst for NBC News, tweeted his frustration with this: “The media reporting on the ‘pardon’ of Ling and Lee without more context implies there was a legitimate ‘conviction.’” I understood him, because it infuriated me as well, and for someone who has devoted one’s life to law and the integrity of the justice system, it must be devastating when things like this happen. That said, I wonder where our responsibilities really lie when it comes to freedom of the press v. control of the message in situations like this one, where complete truth-telling could be a serious bungle. There are situations where despite their reputation for being callous and hungry for any scoop, the media will withhold information upon request of the authorities, to avoid interfering with the investigation or to protect those involved, or even to protect our national security when it comes to details about military strategy and training methods. When it comes to dealing with a country like North Korea, a country that has a bitter hatred for the concept of a free press, and a country with which we have no diplomatic relations, how careful do we need to be? If in times of war or other turmoil, the law falls silent, should the press follow? Where do we draw the line between being wise, and being like them?
I don’t know the answers to these questions; I just know that I’m less judgmental of the media silence on this case, and other cases of imprisoned journalists, than I was a few short weeks ago, and I know that I worry about even publishing thoughts as seemingly harmless as these.
One thing of which I am sure is that there is great joy in this reunion, and great symbolism. The First Amendment and the people who protect it do not go down without a fight. Laura Ling and Euna Lee are soldiers for that cause; they are members of the United States press corps. I was heartened to see people displaying the yellow ribbon in their honor as they would for a POW, and I cried both for them and for this country when they were brought back to us. This was not a small thing we witnessed. This was a chance for the average American to take a moment and realize that it’s not just those in uniform who put their lives on the line for this country—they’re called the press corps for a reason. Sarah Palin and others would do well to reflect on this before they take another shot at “the media” in the general sense, because while there are rotten apples, I have no doubt in my mind that we wouldn’t be able to debate this subject at all were it not for the journalists who do their jobs well. It is their courage and nobility that allows me to write this blog, and allows you to read it. Journalists die every day. Journalists are captured every day. They risk this so that we can critique our government and hold them accountable, so that we can read books, and start blogs, and build libraries, and share information, and go to school, and learn new languages. They do it so we can make art, and sing songs, and love the ones we’re with. They do it so we can create beauty of the highest natural order.
I have such extraordinary gratitude for everyone who worked and wrote and fought and cried for Laura and Euna to come back. It was an honor and a privilege to be a part of the Twitter campaign, and I now have renewed confidence in new media and its daunting power.
And so the story continues. In far-off lands, and in America, where the streets are paved with gold.
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