Stiletto by Max Kolbe – September, 2009

Counting the Cost of Freedom

Two American journalists, one British reporter and an Afghan have defied recent trends and were released from detention for crimes that could hardly have justified their incarceration.

At first glance their release would appear to be a victory for common sense but the reality might unfortunately prove an aberration given the circumstances and efforts required to secure their release.

Laura Ling and Euna Lee who were held for nearly five months in a grim North Korean prison have told how they did not see any international border crossings, like a fence or barbed wire that would indicate they had crossed into the hermit state.

The girls described in the US media their attempt to cross the frozen Tuman River in order to document the route used by human traffickers who smuggle North Koreans over the border to China.

“We didn’t spend more than a minute on North Korean soil before turning back, but it is a minute we deeply regret,” Ling and Lee wrote. “To this day, we still don’t know if we were lured into a trap.”

Their experience is consistent with others who have lost direction close to the border and is consistent with North Korean behaviour that over the years has seized people from beyond its own borders.

The pair became uncomfortable about where they were, they turned and saw North Korean soldiers following them and instinctively ran.

“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 wrote. “They violently dragged us back across the ice to North Korea and marched us to a nearby army base, where we were detained.”

Ling and Lee were released last month but not until former President Bill Clinton met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

Also released was an Afghan journalist imprisoned for 20 years for blasphemy after he downloaded an Internet article about women’s rights and Islam.

Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh, 24, was freed early after President Hamid Karzai signed a pardon, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reported.

“This case will be remembered as a miscarriage of justice marked by religious intolerance, police mistreatment and incompetence on the part of certain judges,” said RSF secretary general Jean-Francois Julliard.

Kambakhsh, a reporter for the Jahan-e-Naw newspaper, was arrested in October 2007, and sentenced to die by a tribunal in Mazar-i-Sharif in January 2008 for downloading from an Iranian website an analysis of what the Koran says about women.

That sentence was changed to 20 years’ imprisonment by an appeals court in the Afghan capital Kabul in October 2008.

So far this year, RSF has counted 174 journalists and media assistants imprisoned, and another 82 cyber dissidents behind bars.

A further 32 journalists have been killed, the latest victims slain in Afghanistan, Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo and El Salvador.

It was the death of Sultan Munadi, a father of two, that raised most eyebrows.

Munadi worked as a journalist and translator for correspondent Stephen Farrell of The New York Times. The pair were kidnapped by Taliban militia on September 5 while reporting on a possible botched NATO airstrike that left 90 people dead.

Farrel, a Brit with dual Irish citizenship, had apparently ignored warnings not travel into the area.

NYT then carried out what was reported as a quiet but intense campaign to keep the story out of the news so as not to be seen as “raising the temperature.”

A raid by British commandos followed. Farrell, 46, was rescued but Munadi, 32, along with a British commando and at least three other people, said to be a Taliban commander, the owner of the compound and a local woman, died.

NYT Executive Editor Bill Keller told National Public Radio (NPR) in the US that newspaper officials thought coverage of the case would put the captured reporter and his Afghan assistant in even greater danger.

“In this case, we had some early word through intermediaries that this might be resolvable and that we could persuade the captors that these guys were legitimate journalists, doing important work, and that they should be released,” he said.

Munadi’s brother, however, described the operation as thoughtless.

“There was no need for this operation at all,” Munadi’s brother Mohammad Osman told Agence France-Presse. “The ICRC (the International Committee for the Red Cross), the United Nations, tribal elders were all involved in optimistic negotiations for their release, when all of sudden this raid took place.

“I cannot blame one particular person for this, it is everyone – the government, The New York Times, Taliban and finally the main responsibility for his death lies with British forces who launched this unnecessary operation.”

The deaths comes amid reports that Islamabad might try a restrict visa access to US journalists which would hamper their ability to travel in and out of Afghanistan.

Western journalists have long been harassed by Pakistani security officials and potential restrictions follow complaints by US media organisations and published articles that question Islamabad’s commitment to freedom of expression.

It has been reported that Hussain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, wrote a letter to the Foreign Secretary and chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence warning them that harassing Americans or denying them visas could cost Pakistan severely.

It’s this type of experience that continues to haunt Indonesia. The Australian Federal Police have notified the families of the five journalists killed in 1975 at Balibo in East Timor that it had begun an investigation into the killings.

A coronial inquest into the death of Channel Nine reporter Brian Peters two years ago concluded that Indonesian soldiers deliberately killed the journalists to cover up Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor.

As then opposition leader, current Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had pledged to follow up the recommendations of the inquiry and the deaths of Peters, Malcolm Rennie, Greg Shackleton, Tony Stewart and Gary Cunningham.

The coronial inquest found Peters was shot and/or stabbed deliberately, and not in the heat of battle, by members of the Indonesian Special Forces.

It named Christoforus da Silva and Captain Yunus Yosfiah as acting on the orders of Captain Yosfiah, to prevent revelations that Indonesian Special Forces were involved in the attack.

Paul Stewart, younger brother of Tony, told Australian media: ”I am glad though that those who will face the glare of the spotlight is the Javanese military elite who killed not only my brother, but hundreds of thousands of East Timorese, West Papuans and Indonesians as well.”

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Luke Hunt is a foreign correspondent, author and occasional photographer who has covered much of Asia fr the last 30 years.

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