Foreign Policy Blogs

Branding Journalism as Espionage

In the past few months, there have been three very high-profile cases of journalists being captured, imprisoned, and accused of espionage. They include two Americans who are now trapped in North Korea, and one Iranian-American who is being held in a notorious Iranian prison.

Roxana Saberi has been charged with espionage by the Iranian government. The former freelance journalist who has worked for major media outlets including National Public Radio (NPR) and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), has not been formally working as a journalist since 2006 according to statements her father made to the media. Apparently, Saberi has no current press credentials. She is being held in one of Iran’s most notorious prisons where at least one journalist has died under suspicious circumstances. According to the Iranian government, she will stand trial next week.

In North Korea, Americans Laura Ling and Euna Lee were taken hostage by the North Korean government, also on charges of espionage. According to Reporters Without Borders, the two women (who work for Al Gore’s Current TV), were taken at the border of China and North Korea. The women have been called “spies” and are being held in Pyongyang.

Journalists getting caught in the cross-fire of dangerous and sticky situations is nothing new. Neither is it a new tack for irrational or marginalized regimes to use journalists as a pawn to threaten or intimidate the journalist’s government. But in the context of the structure of journalism in today’s world, the cases of Saberi, Ling, and Lee could be canaries in the coal mine of a dangerous and insidious trend that is catching on among nation-state regimes. Eager to accuse other nations of something, anything, to distract from the atrocities they are committing, they target journalists.

Saberi was a freelancer. Ling and Lee work for a media organization that is partially built around a model of user-generated content and fosters involvement from its audience. As journalism’s mode of delivery to the public continues to morph into something more fluid and less grounded in organization-affiliation (think bloggers, citizen journalists, freelancers, super-stringers), independent reporters gathering the news are increasingly at risk.

Whether or not Saberi, Ling and Lee committed acts of espionage or were outright spies should not be the issue. If they broke the law, they should be held accountable. But there seems to be no evidence that North Korea and Iran slapping the label of spies on these women is justified. Rather, it seems like the desperate and lawless actions of regimes that are threatened by the very existence of even one person attempting to gather information within their borders.

It makes you wonder–who is more suspect here? Those trying to gather information, or those trying to prevent information from being gathered?



Genevieve Belmaker

Genevieve Belmaker is a freelance journalist and contributing editor with The Epoch Times ( She also contributes to Quill, the magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists and Her blog on journalism is

Genevieve has traveled throughout the U.S., Asia, Central America, Israel and the West Bank for reporting assignments, including major investigative reports on the recovery of New Orleans, the encroaching presence of China in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, the dangerous import of melamine-contaminated milk into the U.S. and settlement outposts in the West Bank. She regularly reports on issues related to journalism, and the work of journalists.

She holds a BA from the University of Southern California in International Relations, and has been a member of several prominent national and international professional media organizations, including the Society of Professional Journalists, Investigative Reporters and Editors, the International Women’s Media Foundation, the New York Press Club, and the Newswomen’s Club of New York. She lives in Jerusalem, Israel with her husband and son.

Areas of Focus:
New Media; Journalism; Culture and Society

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