This blog is supposed to be about modern technology breaking down the barriers to a free press. I’m sure someone else will write about Twitter in Iran or China’s Great Firewall, so allow me to go back in time a little bit in technological terms.
North Korea is itself a time warp. A feudal dictatorship modelled on 1950s Stalinism that denies it’s people even the most basic freedoms. The press is no different, it comes 177th out of 178 in Reporters sans Frontiers Press Freedom Index, ahead only of Eritrea.
The problem with writing about North Korea from an outside perspective is we know so little. Most journalists who make it into the country do so on highly controlled tours, accompanied at all times by minders and shown only what they want you to see. Vice Magazine’s three part, covertly filmed documentary is the best example of what a tour of North Korea is like. Most of what we know from comes from interviews with defectors, done best by Barbara Demick in Nothing to Envy and from the few outsiders who work in the country, NGOs, diplomats and so on.
So, what do we know about the media in North Korea? Well, there’s the English language weekly newspaper, The Pyongyang Times (sample headline: “Kim Jong-Il meets woman soldiers, visits cattle farm”). And then there’s the official source of North Korean news to the outside world, the Korean Central News Agency:
General Secretary Kim Jong Il gave field guidance to the November 20 Factory and the Ryongaksan Spring Water Factory.
The first leg of his guidance was the November 20 Factory.
He looked round a room devoted to the education in the revolutionary history, conducted by leading officials of the factory.
Seeing the historical relics and data on display, he looked back with deep emotion on the glorious path of victory and prosperity covered by the factory under the care of President Kim Il Sung.
Stirring stuff. On a local level the BBC lists four newspapers in it’s section on North Korea, all representing facets of the state. Kim Jong-Il’s book Guidance for Journalists sets out the general tone of the North Korean media:
The only radio and TV stations are also run by the regime, and radio and TV sets are locked to only pick up those stations. Anyone caught listening to foreign broadcasts will be sent to the gulag. And so will their family.
And despite being run by an “internet expert”, North Korea is not yet online, instead there is an internal intranet.
So without the help of the internet, is it possible, from within North Korea, to find out about the outside world?
We’ll find out in part 2…