Friday 2 December 2016

Irish journalist refused to leave North Korea until colleague released - dad

Ryan Nugent

Published 10/05/2016 | 02:30

Maria Byrne was in North Korea to cover the Workers’ Party congress
Maria Byrne was in North Korea to cover the Workers’ Party congress

An Irish journalist working for the BBC who was deported from North Korea refused to leave until her detained colleague was released, according to her father.

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Maria Byrne (35) from Tullow, Co Carlow, is a senior producer with BBC Asia in China and was working in North Korea to cover the congress of the country's Workers' Party.

Carlow native Maria Byrne (inset) was reportedly detained in North Korea
Carlow native Maria Byrne (inset) was reportedly detained in North Korea

Her colleague, Rupert Wingfield-Hayes, was questioned for eight hours by state officials and made to sign a statement.

North Korea says it expelled the BBC team for "insulting the country".

It is understood that Ms Byrne, Mr Wingfield-Hayes and the team's cameraman Matthew Goddard were allowed to leave the country yesterday morning and are now back in China.

However, none of them has been permitted to speak about their ordeal until all other BBC staff leave the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, later this week.

Rupert Wingfield-Hayes being led away from the entrance of Kim Il-sung University during a report. Photo: BBC
Rupert Wingfield-Hayes being led away from the entrance of Kim Il-sung University during a report. Photo: BBC

Speaking to the Irish Independent, her father, Pat Byrne, said the whole situation had been "frightening" and had left the family "very worried".

He said there was a four-hour gap yesterday between when he heard of her situation and when he heard she was okay.

"I was very worried. She was supposed to come back to Beijing on Friday and we got an email from her saying she was safe and well, but that she was going to be staying on there for a couple more days and that she was going back to Beijing on Monday," Mr Byrne said.

"That was more or less to try and reassure us, because she thought the news might break over the weekend - but it didn't, because the BBC purposely kept a lid on it," he added.

Mr Byrne said he is glad he didn't find out about the situation until yesterday morning, because otherwise it would have been "a hell of a long weekend".

However, he said he and the rest of the family were "scared" and in "limbo" yesterday morning when the story broke.

He didn't know where Maria was and had no means of contacting her, with the BBC unable to provide information on her safety or whereabouts until her plane had left North Korea.

"It was crazy, and we were totally in limbo for a few hours - when Maria got to Beijing, she texted us that she had landed and then she was able to phone us," Mr Byrne said.

"It was scary, because we didn't know what was happening or where she was. That was the scariest part of it," he added.

In a statement, the BBC said: "We are very disappointed that our reporter Rupert Wingfield-Hayes and his team have been deported from North Korea after the government took offence at material he had filed.

"Four BBC staff, who were invited to cover the Workers' Party Congress, remain in North Korea and we expect them to be allowed to continue their reporting."

Irish Independent

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