Families of Ling, Lee urge talks to resolve detentions

New York, June 1, 2009–The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on all parties to pursue diplomatic efforts to gain the release of detained U.S. journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who are facing trial in North Korea this week. The families of the two journalists spoke out this morning on U.S. television to urge diplomatic talks to resolve the detentions independent of the larger geopolitical issues on the Korean Peninsula.

“We urge North Korea, the United States and all other parties to come together to see that these two journalists are reunited with their families,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “As their families have made clear, Laura Ling and Euna Lee were only doing their jobs as reporters and had no intention of violating North Korea’s laws when they were detained.”

The two journalists for California-based Current TV are scheduled to be tried on Thursday for alleged “hostile acts” after being detained in mid-March while reporting near the North Korean border.

When the two reporters left the United States, they specifically told relatives that they had no intention of crossing into North Korea, Ling’s sister, the journalist Lisa Ling, said on the “Today” show this morning. If the journalists had done so inadvertently, she and other family members said they offered apologies.

Lisa Ling told CPJ that relatives have also sent a letter to North Korean authorities, saying the women made a mistake if they had crossed into North Korea.

Laura Ling and Lee were reporting on living conditions for North Korean refugees in China. Border police detained the two on March 17 as they were filming at a bridge crossing over the Tumen River, which forms the border between North Korea–officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea–and China. The porous border has generated trade and traffic in the area, along with a sizable North Korean population living in exile or traveling back and forth looking for economic opportunities.

The South Korean news agency Yonhap said the journalists were detained after they refused to stop filming. Some accounts said the arrests took place on Chinese soil, according to a BBC report.

According to the family and Swedish diplomatic officials, who have worked as intermediaries, Lee and Ling are being kept separately in a government guest house outside of Pyongyang. They have made a limited number of phone calls home, during which they told family members they were not being physically abused.

Lee has a 4-year-old daughter, who appeared with family members on the “Today” show. Ling suffers from an ulcer, which family members fear may be aggravated by her detention.

Family members told NBC’s Matt Lauer that they had kept a low profile for several weeks because of the extreme sensitivity of the situation but chose to speak out now as the trial approached. To call attention to the detentions, a series of vigils has been scheduled for Wednesday in cities across the United States.

The North Korean government rarely issues visas allowing foreign journalists to visit the country, and then only under official supervision. Checkpoint guards have displayed hostility towards reporters in nearby Chinese territory, The Associated Press has reported.