On Sunday, the Associated Press asked its client agencies worldwide to withdraw the photo, issuing a “kill notice” on it, and saying the agency no longer stood by the photo. The image had been distributed by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on July 16.
The incident gives a window into the difficulties the AP may face reporting from North Korea, having just this month signed a memorandum of understanding to establish a text and photo bureau in Pyongyang. (Reuters has also signed a deal to feed video from Pyongyang for distribution to its TV clients worldwide.)
Both AP and Reuters have called KCNA a government “mouthpiece.” Yet both agencies signed their deals with the North Korean news agency, acknowledging there is little alternative but to cooperate with the state-run media if they hope to get the kind of access needed to anchor a bureau.
AP released an advisory about the flooding photo, in what could be the first of many such advisories, stating:
Editors and librarians please eliminate from your photo systems and archives the AP photo (from the KCNA) on July 16, 2011. The content of this image has been digitally altered and does not accurately reflect the scene. No other version of the photo is available.
Photoshopping has come in vogue by state-controlled media in recent months, with the releases of what appear to be altered photos of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad swearing in a new governor, of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak leading other heads of state down a hallway (in place of President Obama), and of three Chinese officials on a road who were seemingly levitating.
In Egypt and China, the AP and Reuters have a strong presence and do not have to rely on state-run images. The doctored images of Mubarak and levitating officials would not have gone through.
Syria, on the other hand, which is known for its restrictions on foreign journalists and release of images, may provide a model for the agencies on how to proceed in Pyongyang. With caution.