Fifield, who is currently the Tokyo bureau chief for the Washington Post, takes issue with a June 22nd op-ed from Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal who argues that foreign reporters in places like North Korea, China and Iran are just being used as tools of the regime in power. Stephens was notably critical about the way the Washington Post has defended it’s reporter Jason Rezaian after his arrest in Iran by saying he followed “the rules,” but then made no effort to explain what the “rules” are, leaving readers no way to judge the veracity of stories about Iran.
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Information to be found even with government “minders”
Any information is better than no information, according to Fifield: “…we invariably come back with some snippet of information that can enhance our understanding about these countries and the lives of the people there.”
She goes on to say that she believes that anything she can pass on to her readers and viewers is a good thing, as it increases the general public awareness about these threatening regimes, including boosting awareness in those who decide our foreign policy towards these countries (and who in most cases, can’t go to there themselves.)
When it comes to North Korea, she argues, we know so very little about the country that every bit of information, no matter how tiny, can help us understand what is going on.
Of interest, Fifield is in firm agreement with Stephens on the importance of being transparent about the media censorship. She notes: “…going to these highly controlled places, it is incumbent on us as journalists to be transparent about the restrictions placed upon us.”
Example in North Korea
Fifield highlights that she’s been to Kim Il Sung’s birthplace six times on her trips, and not by her choice. That said, she has also requested interviews and been allowed to speak to an economics professor, a factory manager and a business tycoon.
She pointed out that she did not expect these people to tell the truth as they would be risking their jobs and even their lives by doing so. She says: “I always assumed I was being given the official story, and made this clear in my reporting.”
However, when it gets down to it, some information is better than no information. Fifield notes that she learned that there was almost no electricity available during business hours at most prestigious educational institution in North Korea. She said this became obvious when a university administrator turned on the elevator so she didn’t have to climb up the 20 long flights of stairs. She also noted the professor’s office was unheated, despite the very cold temperatures outside.
This fact was further bolstered by a trip to the Red Cross hospital in Pyongyang, the best medical facility in the country, where there was also almost no heating. Fifield wrote: “I was inside in my Gore-Tex coat, shivering, while patients sat in their beds in thin pajamas.”