When the phone rings at 1 a.m., I usually ignore it. But early in the morning of March 19, 2009, I awoke to the sound of my cell phone buzzing on the nightstand. It was a call I never expected to get.
Laura Ling and Euna Lee, two of my colleagues at Current TV's documentary series, Vanguard, had been apprehended by North Korean soldiers and taken somewhere inside that black hole of a country. I sat up in bed, trying to absorb and understand what I'd just heard.
This week, Laura is finally speaking at length about her experiences, first on the Oprah Winfrey Show and then on Current in a special, very personal episode of Vanguard.
The story Laura and Euna were working on -- about women from North Korea whose lives as refugees were still fraught with danger and fear -- hadn't set off major alarms when they set out. Laura was my boss, an accomplished journalist who had reported on stories in some of the most dangerous areas of the world. She had just covered the drug trade in Juarez, Mexico -- one of the most dangerous places in the world -- and she'd worked extensively on sensitive stories in China.
Euna was an editor who normally worked only in the office, on her first trip as a field producer. Mitch Koss, the producer on the shoot, had an extensive career in journalism. He'd even previously reported on missionaries helping refugees out of North Korea -- right in the same area that he, Laura and Euna had headed out to.
When you're out in the field, you never know what may go down. Risk profiles change constantly, and what may at one moment be a perfectly "safe" story can suddenly become risky. Considering where our teams had been in the past, we've always exercised a high degree of caution on the field, constantly weighing the risks and rewards of our every move. Laura and her team were taking precautions, and it didn't seem like a story that required much risk. We had no idea that they would be in a situation where things would spiral out of control so quickly.
That early morning after first getting the news, I braced myself, then called Current's CEO, Joel Hyatt, who quickly relayed the message to the network's chairman, Vice President Al Gore. I then reached out to Laura's and Euna's families. It was frightening and surreal.
Telling the Vanguard team proved difficult in a different way. This is a group of intrepid journalists who regularly put themselves in harm's way to report on stories they feel need to be shared with the world. As much as I couldn't stop thinking about how terrified Laura and Euna must be, I also worried what the implications would be for us -- the team Laura had assembled herself. We were in the midst of production on our third season, each story dangerous and difficult in its own unique way.
Mariana van Zeller, another Vanguard correspondent, was on assignment in Sri Lanka, and my first impulse was to talk her into coming home. She was, after all, reporting about terrorists in a war zone. But -- and I remember this so clearly -- Mariana said that, in spite of the fact that she wanted to be close to us, she couldn't. We had a job to do, an important one.
The weeks and months that Laura and Euna were held captive never became easy. While the pain couldn't compare with what they were suffering in North Korea, or what their families were enduring, everyone at Current was shaken. We had no idea how the North Korean regime would act, except unpredictably. Much of our time was spent gathering around televisions any time a piece of news would trickle out. We struggled through an emotional rollercoaster to maintain Laura's vision for the show and continue our work reporting around the world.
We knew negotiations were taking place far behind the scenes, but we had no idea when to expect a breakthrough. We were grateful to have the support of organizations such as Liberty in North Korea (LINK), which helps spirit North Koreans to freedom, as well as the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters without Borders, who fight for journalists' rights and safety around the world.
Occasionally, a glimmer of hope would surface. We attended candlelight vigils, sent care packages and wrote letters. Then we heard about President Bill Clinton's mission to North Korea -- and soon after Laura and Euna were finally home.
Vanguard is dedicated to responsible, fearless reporting. Our commitment to this mission is greater than ever before. As we've learned first hand, there are major dangers involved in investigative reporting. But we believe there's an even greater risk in not going after the stories that most need to be told.
"Captive in North Korea," a special Vanguard episode with Laura Ling, will air on Current TV on May 19 at 10/9c. Watch more from Vanguard here.
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