BBC correspondent in North Korea detained over reporting

A woman reading newspapers displayed inside a subway station visited by foreign reporters on a government organised tour in central Pyongyang, North Korea, on May 7, 2016.
A woman reading newspapers displayed inside a subway station visited by foreign reporters on a government organised tour in central Pyongyang, North Korea, on May 7, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (AFP) - A BBC reporter in North Korea was detained, interrogated for eight hours and eventually expelled over his reporting in the run-up to a rare ruling party congress, the British broadcaster said on Monday (May 9).

Foreign reporters invited to cover specific events in North Korea are subjected to very tight restrictions, regarding access and movement.

Numerous journalists have found themselves prevented from returning to the country because their previous coverage was deemed “inaccurate” or “disrespectful” – but detaining and then expelling a reporter while still in the country is extremely rare.

The BBC reporter, Rupert Wingfield-Hayes, was about to board a plane departing Pyongyang airport with two other BBC staff on Friday when he was stopped and taken into detention, the BBC said.

He was then questioned for around eight hours, apparently over one of his reports which questioned the authenticity of a hospital his team was visiting.

“He was taken to a hotel and interrogated by the security bureau here in Pyongyang before being made to sign a statement and then released” on Saturday morning, said Mr John Sudworth, another BBC reporter covering the congress in the North Korean capital.

Mr Sudworth said the BBC had sought to keep the detention and expulsion order quiet out of concern for Mr Wingfield-Hayes’ safety and that of the two other members of his team, who had refused to leave on Friday after he was detained.

However, the news broke following a press conference early Monday by the North’s National Peace Committee.

China’s official Xinhua news agency, which has a permanent bureau in Pyongyang, cited the committee as saying he had been expelled for “attacking the DPRK system and non-objective reporting.” The DPRK is North Korea’s official acronym.

The three-person BBC team was taken to the airport on Monday.

“They were certainly very shaken,” Mr Sudworth said, adding that Mr Wingfield-Hayes had suddenly found himself “under a huge amount of pressure.”

During their interrogation, the North Korean authorities had made it very clear to Mr Wingfield-Hayes that they saw the content of his reporting as a “very, very serious issue,” Mr Sudworth said.

The BBC team had been working in North Korea for several days ahead of the party congress opening last Friday, accompanying a delegation of Nobel prize laureates conducting a research trip.

There are currently around 130 foreign journalists in Pyongyang – all of whom were ostensibly invited to cover what is the first Workers’ Party congress to be held for more than 35 years.

However, all access to the conclave has been denied, with coverage of the event restricted to watching state television and a brief photo opportunity across the street from the venue on Friday.

In the meantime, the journalists have been taken on formal excursions around Pyongyang, including visits to a wire factory, Mr Kim Il Sung’s birthplace and a maternity hospital.

Mr Sudworth said Mr Wingfield-Hayes’ expulsion had raised serious concerns among those reporters still in Pyongyang.

“The idea that somebody would be prevented from leaving the country and put under this kind of pressure simply because the North Korean authorities disagree with the content of his reporting ... is not just for me, as one of his colleagues, but for other journalists here, of deep concern,” he said.