Detention of reporters strains media firm

With backing from Al Gore, Current TV was launched four years ago as a mix of traditional journalism and viewer-produced content meant to create an open exchange with its audience.

But the plight of its reporters Laura Ling and Euna Lee, imprisoned while on assignment in North Korea, has put the independent cable venture at the center of the news and challenged its culture of transparency.

While U.S. officials and family members have publicly called for the release of the women, Current TV has remained resolutely silent.

The media outlet has not commented or reported on the situation and has even taken the unusual step of deleting messages of support posted to its Web site.

Ling and Lee were accused of crossing from China into North Korea and sentenced by the top North Korean court last week to 12 years of hard labor for engaging in what the country called a politically fueled smear campaign.

Media observers said the cautious approach by Current TV could be justified when dealing with an unpredictable country such as North Korea.

Strategies of media companies differ when their journalists are endangered; some rally publicly in their defense, while others pursue back-channel negotiations, said Tala Dowlatshahi, New York director of the press freedom group Reporters Without Borders.

Dowlatshahi warned against blaming the journalists or Current TV's "backpack journalism" approach, which outfits reporters with portable, easy-to-use technology that allows movement through dangerous territory.

Ling and Lee were seasoned reporters doing their jobs, she said.

"To say that this type of guerrilla journalism is putting journalists in more risk than traditional journalism is not the issue," Dowlatshahi said. "The issue is these women are not criminals, they're journalists, and they were not given proper legal treatment."