Attempts at Taming the Press

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Attempts at Taming the Press

Fifty years have passed since the Republic of Korea proclaimed liberal democracy, but the status of freedom of the press remains far removed from the pronounced ideals. The history of the press in Korea is interspersed with political interference, maneuvering and oppression, and is marked by the struggle of the press against persecution, as well as its compromises and submission.

Although the situation has improved since former President Roh Tae-woo issued the June 29, 1987 declaration on democratic reforms, political maneuvering by those in power to tame the press still goes on. Even the opposition is now showing an undisguised intention of employing underhanded tactics to tame and manage the news media.

We cannot of course compare the post-1990s administrations with the authoritative military regimes that ruled from the 1960s until the 1980s in their handling of the media. The military regimes exercised complete control over the media by mobilizing every means available to subjugate them physically, administratively, politically, legislatively and economically. Intelligence agents practically resided at media organizations, where they willfully regulated the news and arrested and interrogated journalists, who were also routinely subjected to physical violence and abusive language.

The Park Chung Hee administration tried to nullify conflicts with the news media by enacting a series of oppressive laws and emergency measures that amounted to ruthless violence committed in the name of the law and that ultimately left the media powerless.

The subsequent Chun Doo Hwan administration smothered the press by firing journalists, merging and closing down media organizations and enacting the Basic Press Law. It tried to have the media under its complete dominion by issuing news reporting guidelines every day. It systemized state control on every level, but could not forestall the changes of time or suppress the people''s ardent desire for democracy.

Relationships between the government and the media have improved considerably since the June 29 declaration, which was a virtual admission of defeat by the government as it bowed to the people''s call for democracy. But problems did not vanish altogether, because those in power prefer to have the media as a collaborator, not a critic. They find media criticism hard to take and are constantly at pains to win their cooperation. They try to maintain an influence of any form on the media, not hesitating to engineer such maneuverings as digging up dirt on their members to exert pressure or manipulating them through favors.

Even during the previous Kim Young-sam and the current Kim Dae-jung administrations, both of which proudly proclaim to be champions of democracy, relationship with the media remained strained. From the onset, the two administrations concentrated on establishing friendly personnel connections within media organizations. The current administration replaced the heads of four state-invested media organizations with outsiders sharing deep affinity with the administration. As for other news media organizations, the people from President Kim Dae-jung''s home region made rapid advances to key positions after he rose to power.

The media organizations, for their part, made such biased appointments partly to maintain smooth relations with the administration and to more easily collect information. It cannot be denied, however, that the government played a big role by blacklisting certain hostile media executives and letting the pertinent media organizations know of the blacklist. It also attempted to exert indirect pressure by conducting tax probes, wiretapping and secretly investigating media executives and mobilizing its supporters to denounce the media organizations critical of the government.

It was in the same vein that the Grand National Party drew up the recently discovered document on its schemes to systemically manage the news media friendly to the opposition and to collect and take advantage of the data on the corruption and irregularities of anti-opposition journalists.

The ruling party has been launching a fierce offensive since the discovery of the document, calling it a contemptible maneuvering. Its sniping at the opposition is laughable, however, since it has not been above employing the same despicable tactics. The situation is not likely to improve even if there is a transfer of power in the next presidential race. It is difficult for members of the media to fight feelings of bitter betrayal and despair.

But then freedom of the press is not something given or guaranteed. It is a value that the members of the press have to fight to win and preserve with courage and a sense of equilibrium.

If the news media are to be courageous, and open and aboveboard, they must have no scruples about their morals. We are living in an age where the stress is on the importance of the ethics and responsibility of the media. The media have a responsibility to strictly observe the principles of maintaining independence and reporting objectively.

Members of the press personally experienced the value of these principles during the last presidential election. It is extremely important for them not to give any handle to those in power to allow them to have a hold and exercise control.

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