How does North Korea celebrate World Press Freedom Day? First of all, two weeks late, on May 15 rather than May 3, presumably (and tellingly) because that's how long it took to get around to it. But get around to it North Korea did, with a special editorial in the state-run Rodong Sinmun, the country's preeminent newspaper. Entitled "Mockery of Press," it targets the U.S. media, arguing that they are too tightly restricted, thus belying U.S. calls for press freedom, and, simultaneously, that they are too free.
It sounds silly and hypocritical, and maybe it is, but it makes a little more sense when you keep in mind that the paper is speaking to fellow North Koreans. Still, it's interesting to listen in. The state outlet does have some kind words for two American journalists, who are mentioned through no fault of their own: Politico media reporter Dylan Byers and former White House correspondent Helen Thomas.
But before we get to that, here's the North Korean case against press freedom. Thursday's editorial argues that American media freedom is bad because it weakens and upsets the leadership:
In 2006 the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times and other media gave wide publicity to the U.S. Administration's "counter-terrorist war" [in Iraq] as unjustifiable.
At this the U.S. authorities got enraged, saying such report activities of the press organs plunged the country into a very disgraceful status, did a very great harm to the U.S. interests and brought a greater difficulty to victory of "counter-terrorist war."
The well-being of the leadership and strength of the nation are considered paramount in the North Korean worldview. And "propaganda" is not necessarily a bad word. So, in this thinking, media criticism of the government doesn't seem like a healthy, necessary check on power, and it certainly doesn't seem like an expression of the public good.
The very next paragraphs seem to actually praise one of those American reporters, although it's tough to say for sure. Politico's Byers wrote in April that the White House was concerned that U.S. media outlets were hyping North Korea's military tests and doing Pyongyang's scaremongering work for it.
Oddly, Rodong Sinmun seems to take Byers's article as proof that the U.S. media are not actually free at all, but puppets of the White House. Here's what the editorial says:
The reporter exposed that the White House said reports on the DPRK's launch of satellite is free propaganda for the DPRK and demanded news reporters not conspire with "Korea's propaganda activities".
The U.S. pressmen are cripple reporters under gag law.
This is when things take a twist. The editorial praises Helen Thomas, a former White House correspondent for Hearst newspapers, who resigned after saying of Israel, "tell 'em to get the hell out of Palestine," adding that the Jews there should "go home" to "Poland, Germany." Rodong Sinmun argues that Thomas was wrongly pressured out of her job and had done nothing wrong. It does get a couple of things wrong: First, it refers to her as a "he" and, second, it seems to confuse her statement that all Jews should leave Israel with advocating that Israel should withdraw from occupied Palestinian territories.
A vivid proof of it [the "gag law"] is an early retirement of Helen Thomas, one of a few White House reporters.
Requested by his colleague to comment on the Israel issue, he said Israel should withdraw from Palestine, an occupied territory.
There was nothing wrong in his remark.
But, unable to bear down the repeated pressure of the U.S. authorities siding with Israel, Thomas made public a statement of "apology" and made the last parting with his job.
The article concludes that American journalists "distort the truth and mislead the public opinion to curry favor with power," that freedom of the press does not really exist in the United States and that American officials are thus in no position to criticize North Korea.
Happy World Press Freedom Day!