San Francisco - "You are not alone. You have a whole world of supporters who are rallying and praying for you." That was the message issued this week to two American reporters in North Korea from Roxana Saberi, the US-Iranian journalist who was recently freed from detention in Iran.
Euna Lee, 26, and Laura Ling, 32, two California-based journalists, were sentenced Monday by North Korea's central court to 12 years of hard labour for committing an unspecified "grave crime" and illegally entering the country.
The two journalists were detained March 17 while working on a story about North Korean refugees along the Chinese border. Lee and Ling work for San Francisco-based Current TV, which was co-founded by former US vice president Al Gore.
The families of the two women, as well as their employer, have adopted a policy of not commenting on the case in an apparent attempt to avoid antagonizing the North Korean regime as the US government uses discreet diplomacy to work for their release.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Lee and Ling should be immediately released on humanitarian grounds, but would not discuss the details of the diplomatic efforts to secure their freedom.
However, pressure could build quickly for more concerted action. Online petitions calling for the release of the two women reached the 50,000 mark Thursday, while a Facebook group with a similar aim had more than 18,000 members.
The mainstream US press is also focusing attention on the Current TV journalists.
As a central figure in Current TV's "vanguard journalism unit," Ling was on a mission to remake television news into a force capable of dealing seriously with major stories, rather than just reacting to celebrity-driven news cycles, according to profiles in major newspapers like the New York Times and Los Angeles Times.
Ling grew up in the Sacramento area of California and got her start in television as an associate producer at San Francisco-based Channel One in 1999 after graduating from UCLA with a degree in communications studies.
She quickly displayed a keen sense for engrossing, big picture reporting, graduating to producer and travelling to the West Bank, Indonesia, Myanmar, Cuba and the Philippines while also covering issues such as Los Angeles gangs and homeless teens.
"For as long as I've known her, (she) has always had a global conscience and was interested in stories that were happening around the world," Morgan Wandell, the former president of programming at Channel One, told the Los Angeles Times Thursday.
About three years ago, Ling moved to Current TV where she became a vice president of the vanguard unit, which she described in a short promotional video as dedicated to investigating the "big issues really affecting our world."
"We're trying to push the envelope here, and stay out in front of events, rather than regurgitate news headlines," she said.
Well before she went to Korea to work on a sex trafficking story, she displayed a selfless dedication to that ideal, leading in-depth investigations into marijuana trafficking, child prostitution, underground churches in China and slave labour.
Despite her apparent disregard for her own safety, she was always concerned about her crew. Dan Beckmann, who worked at Current TV under Ling for two years, called her "the centre of that department."
"I've never had a boss who was ever that worried that everyone working for her was happy," he told the Los Angeles Times.
The other journalist, editor Lee, was on her first foreign assignment, largely because of her Korean language skills. She moved as an adult from Korea to the US and is the mother of a four-year-old daughter.
"She's one of those people who's the unsung hero, makes sure the work gets done. She was working to help out the team when she went to China because she was the only person on the team who spoke Korean," Beckmann said.
Prior to her sentencing, Lee's husband Michael Saldate gave a brief interview to broadcaster CNN in which he revealed some of the torment facing their family.
He said he had not told their daughter about Lee's imprisonment and was trying to keep life as normal as possible. "She still thinks mommy is at work," he said. (dpa)
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