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Ohio Today

Communication graduate imprisoned in China

UPDATE: Jae-Hyun Seok, MA '96, was released from prison March 19, 2004. News Photographer magazine, a publication of the National Press Photographers Association, published news of his release in a story that included reaction from School of Visual Communication Director Terry Eiler and alumnus John Kaplan, BSJ '82 and MS '98, a Pulitzer-prize winning photojournalist and friend of Seok. Read the full story from the National Press Photographers Association site.

Jae-Hyun Seok's supporters rally for his release, support of journalists' rights

By Joan Slattery Wall

The fate of an Ohio University College of Communication alumnus imprisoned in China lies in the hands of three judges there, and fellow alumni have a chance now to speak on his behalf.

Jae-Hyun Seok's plight began Jan. 18 when the freelance South Korean photojournalist was photographing North Korean refugees attempting flee China on fishing boats bound for South Korea and Japan. Chinese police arrested the refugees along with Seok and an aid worker.

On May 22, a Chinese court sentenced Seok to two years in prison after convicting him of "trafficking in human beings," according to Reporters Without Borders, one of several organizations lobbying for Seok's release. An appeal in his case had been scheduled for June 23, but it has been delayed. Seok's supporters, who are trying to determine exact details about his case and holding rallies to deliver petitions to the Chinese embassy and the Korean foreign ministry on his behalf, argue that his journalistic work is not a criminal offense.

Seok, a contributor to The New York Times and South Korea's Geo Magazine, teaches at Taegu Future College in South Korea.

Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist John Kaplan, also an Ohio University alumnus, has joined the efforts to free Seok, whom he met four years ago when he traveled to South Korea to arrange a series of exhibitions and workshops. Seok's family hosted him during his several-week stay, and since then, Kaplan, BSJ '82 and MS '98, and Seok, MA '96, have become close friends.

Seok last year edited Kaplan's "Surviving Torture" project, which focused on torture victims in West Africa, for publication in the Korean magazine Viscom. Along with Kaplan, Seok and fellow Ohio University alumnus Yong-Hwan Lee, MA '02, shared a Photo District News Best of Photography Award for the work for the magazine. The project also won the Overseas Press Club Award for feature photography and the Harry Chapin Media Award for Photojournalism. The Robert F. Kennedy Foundation and numerous other photography and news organizations also have lauded the project. To increase visibility of Seok's case, Kaplan dedicated the Overseas Press Club award to Seok.

"I'm just terribly saddened by his situation," Kaplan says. "He's like a brother to me. He's one of the best people I know in the world. He could never be a people smuggler. He'd do anything to help anybody, and he's a dedicated journalist and professor."

Kaplan's efforts join others by organizations such as the Overseas Press Club, the Committee to Protect Journalists and a Korean group, Resolution 217 (, formed specifically to win Seok's release. Kaplan keeps track of Seok's case through contacts in South Korea, including Nayan Sthankiya, an organizer of Resolution 217. Kaplan has written letters to China officials in support of Seok, keeping his correspondence in a tone of requesting an error be corrected rather than attacking the policies of China.

Seok's supporters say he was documenting the plight of North Korean refugees, who, in order to escape repression in their own country, flee to China in hopes of seeking asylum in a third country. The Chinese government regularly sends them back to North Korea, reports the Committee to Protect Journalists.

"I personally believe that Jae, like any other good photojournalist, wasn't trying to take sides in that story," Kaplan says. "I think it's an important point to make, because a good photojournalist puts the issues in front of people and then lets the readers make their own decisions about an issue. I don't really see him as an advocate for that particular issue. I see him as kind of a conduit to help bring it to light."

Kaplan, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Florida who in 1992 won a Pulitzer for a project about the diverse lifestyles of American 21-year-olds, says Seok had discussed his goal of doing the story in China for quite some time.

"I know he considered it to be an important story. I think for a while he's wanted to do a strong issue-oriented project," Kaplan says, explaining that Seok, as many photojournalists do, was independently beginning to work on the project in the hopes of selling it later. "Jae was trying to find a balance between enjoying being a teacher and also wanting to make a name in journalism as a shooter. I really think he saw this project as a way to solidify his reputation as a very committed photojournalist."

Efforts on Seok's behalf so far have included a Freedom of Expression Festival held in his honor in South Korea in mid-May by Resolution 217.

"We are in the early planning stages for a global protest to be held in front of Chinese embassies simultaneously in Toronto, Berkley, Amsterdam, Seoul and Tokyo to bring further international attention and pressure on China," says Sthankiya, explaining the situation by e-mail from Korea.

He said letters requesting Seok's release can be sent directly to Chinese and Korean embassies to "show the Chinese and Korean governments that this issue is not just a Korean issue but is an international issue not only about Jae's imprisonment but also his free-speech (rights) as guaranteed under the U.N. charter."

Joan Slattery Wall is assistant editor of Ohio Today.

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