North Korea was the world's worst violator of press freedom, according to the global ranking carried out by Reporters Without Borders in 2002. This Stalinist bastion had absolutely no form of press pluralism. All the news media were focussed on the personality cult of Kim Jong Il.
It was reported on 13 February 2002 that the North Korean authorities had recently released Takashi Sugishima, a retired journalist who used to work for the Japanese daily Nihon Keizai Shimbun. A militant pacifist, Sugishima, was arrested in 1999 on a charge of spying for Japan and South Korea. The Japanese authorities had categorically denied the charge.
All the news media in North Korea were mouthpieces of the regime and lavished extensive praise on Chairman Kim Jong Il. The TV news programmes consisted largely of footage of the dictator visiting new companies or attending opening ceremonies, accompanied by lyrical comments on the greatness of Kim Il Sung's son and successor. Three subjects absorbed the attention of the print media, radio and TV: the personality of Kim Jong Il, praise of the army, and criticism of the country's foes, especially South Korea, the United States and Japan. Those running the news media, including the editor of Rodong Shinmun (Labour Daily), the chairman of the Korean Central News Agency and the directors of the state TV broadcaster, were all senior members of the party central committee and came under Kim's direct supervision.
The official newspapers were posted in the street but few people stopped to read them or buy them. On the other hand, they were distributed very extensively throughout the state ministries and state agencies. Labour Daily, the organ of the Korean Workers' Party, and the national news agency had Internet sites hosted in Japan. Direct access to the web was limited to the privileged few.
There were strict controls to prevent access to any kind of news coming from abroad. The authorities were able to count on the complicity of the Chinese police to track down anyone trying to smuggle information in or out of North Korea by its northern border. Radio and TV sets were preset to the state broadcasters and were sealed to prevent tuning into other stations.
The authorities granted more visas to foreign journalists in 2002 than in previous years for official visits or (the few) press trips. But it was not easy to report, once on site. About 15 journalists, including reporters from Agence France-Presse, France 2, Reuters, Der Spiegel and Figaro, were invited to North Korea on 10-14 May for the "Arirang" spring festival. This was the first press trip ever hosted by North Korea. Until then, reporters had come with economic or political delegations. The organisers told the journalists: "The air is pure and the streets are crime-free... tell your friends and ask them to come." Each journalist was accompanied by an official guide. The programme included a bus tour in which stopping to film, talk to people, enter shops or even visit a factory or farm cooperative were all banned. The only stops allowed were at monuments to the glory of the regime and, as a highlight, an opportunity to lay a wreath at the foot of a statue of Kim Il Sung. At the end of the visit the guides warned: "Some of you wanted to see forbidden things. We will see what you report in your news media and those of you who write or screen bad things will not be allowed back."
French freelance photographer Olivier Mirguet went on a reporting trip with the approval of the North Korean delegation in Paris in May. He was escorted by two guides and a driver for the official tour, which consisted above all of stops at monuments to the glory of Kim Il Sung. He was forbidden to take unauthorised photographs or stop the car where he wanted. When he finally managed to take a few shots without his guides being present, three men in civilian dress detained him and demanded his film. Thereafter his guides were summoned several times for questioning by the police, who wanted them to guarantee that Mirguet would "relay good propaganda and make tourists come to North Korea."
The US agency Associated Press Television News (APTN) failed in its effort in 2002 to become the first western agency to set up a permanent bureau in Pyongyang, despite helping with television coverage of the gigantic celebrations marking the anniversary of Kim Il Sung's birth.
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