North Korea Among the Worst Media on Earth

There is still no such thing as press freedom in North Korea, according to the 2009 Press Freedom Index produced by Reporters without Borders.

This year’s ranking places North Korea in 174th place on a list of just 175, below ally China (168), Middle Eastern regimes like Saudi Arabia (163) and Jordan (112), neighbor South Korea (69), and far below the region with the freest presses of all, Scandinavia, whose nations are all in the top five.

North Korea has not climbed out of the bottom two since the ranking was first produced in 2002.

The detention of American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee earlier this year focused international attention on North Korea’s lack of press freedom, but that case was just a blip on the radar of Pyongyang’s constant suppression of the flow of information from both within and without.

The ranking is averaged from the results of a questionnaire which asks journalists, researchers and human rights activists about violations that directly affect journalism: murder; imprisonment; threats; censorship; searches and so on. Although North Korea scores extremely poorly in most ways, some key areas include the degree of independence the media enjoys, the existence of a state monopoly over information, and freedom of the internet.

North Korean domestic media represents a perfect monopoly, with no independent journalism by North Koreans permitted and zero freedom for international reporters to travel and report from within the country. Journalists are issued North Korean visas to cover important events, but they are tightly constrained once they arrive.

There are three major domestic newspapers, each targeting a different constituency. The best-known is the Rodong Shinmun, which is put out by the Korean Workers’ Party and posted for public consumption in places such as subway stations, as well as being distributed to low-level Party organizations. The other two are Youths’ Advance Guard by the Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League, and Chosun People’s Army, which is published by the Chosun People’s Army.

Regardless of the publisher, the three contain the same information and there is little or no international news therein; the required “news” is handed down by the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Central Committee and published accordingly.

The only thing one can find in North Korea which approximates to a newspaper as we might recognize it is the so-called “Reference Newspaper,” which is treated as a secret document because its contents are viewed as a threat to the regime. Written and published by the Chosun Central News Agency, only officials above the level of Provincial Committee of the Party director are permitted to read it, it must be read at work and returned in the same condition in which it was given, it cannot be taken home and there is no accessible archive.

The Chosun Central News Agency, known internationally as the KCNA, also maintains a website which carries propagandistic, unverifiable “news” about domestic events in the country. It does not cover events which show the regime in a negative light, and tends to focus on the latest onsite inspections by Kim Jong Il or increasingly scarce international plaudits heaped upon the Workers’ Party by international left wing organizations.,

Turning to TV, there are three channels, all operated by the government: Chosun Central TV, Chosun Education Culture TV, and Mansudae TV. The latter is the only one which might be considered entertainment, carrying as it does old Soviet movies and a number of Chinese dramas. Unfortunately, it is only available in Pyongyang, and even then only on holidays and at the weekend. The former is the source of the daily news reports that are occasionally rebroadcast internationally when North Korea reports the launch of a missile or other event of similar significance.

Finally, there is the 3rd Cable Broadcast. Physically carried into all homes by cable, it is radio which carries an endless supply of domestic “news,” propaganda, lectures and decrees. Of all the state media, it is the most influential.

Regarding the internet, to all intents and purposes North Korea doesn’t have it. Reporters without Borders single out eight countries which have “transformed their Internet into an Intranet in order to prevent their population from accessing ‘undesirable’ online information.” An unfiltered internet is only available for foreigners and the highest officials.

However, there is a silver lining. There are other ways to get information on the outside world from within North Korea; smuggled CDs and DVDs, and especially the jangmadang. People coming and going to China are a far more reliable source of information than anything the government chooses to print.