[EDITORIAL] Room for Worry in Media ProbesWe are compelled to express our deep concern that the National Tax Service's methods in its recent probe of media companies constitute an act of malfeasance that may cow the press. Despite the tax authorities' justifications, the pursuit of journalists' accounts and the investigations into newspaper delivery outlets present the danger of being abused to suppress the press.
The NTS explains that the investigations are to compare the transaction data between newspaper headquarters and branch offices and to see whether newspapers are distributed for free or if the outlets receive subsidies from their headquarters. That is hard to understand, however, because it is a great departure from the tax collection principle the NTS has abided by in the past. In investigating avoidance of value-added and corporate taxes, the NTS has relied on the "principle of minimum expense." Since it is best to collect a maximum amount of taxes by using a minimum number of personnel, the authorities normally resort to a sample survey. In light of this customary practice, it does not make sense when droves of investigators suddenly descend on small-scale newspaper distribution centers. If over 500 offices are being probed, at least 500 NTS employees are working on this case.
We sympathize with the assertion that the press is not sacrosanct. We also accept with humility that press reform is necessary. Yet the behavior of mobilizing the entire staff of local tax authorities to look into newspaper branches defies common sense. It gives the impression of menacing newspaper distribution by waging an all-out war on the news companies or creating a coercive atmosphere with a "human wave" tactic.
What is more worrisome is that the NTS seems to be tracing journalists' personal accounts. The special committee to deter press control, set up by the Grand National Party and headed by Rep. Park Kwan-yong, said it has evidence in several cases of account tracing from those who were subjected to this probe. The NTS responded that it had not traced journalists' accounts and it had no plan to do so in the future. However, the NTS has acted suspiciously. With the launch of tax audit into newspapers in February, the NTS demanded lists of journalists above the level of deputy desk chief and their resident registration numbers. According to existing laws, the NTS is entitled to look into an individual's bank accounts without a warrant.
The NTS insists that if the investigations are focused on business and management offices only, there is a room for accusations of targeted investigations; it is also possible that the NTS is attempting to ferret out accounts in borrowed names or evidence of paying expenses for news gathering and transportation. Some people in the ruling party say, "If journalists have nothing to be ashamed of, why would they be afraid of having their accounts tracked down?" Even law-abiding citizens will feel daunted if they are placed in a situation where they may be subjected to searches and seizures at any time. Therefore, the possibility that the NTS may chase journalists' accounts will work as a tacit pressure to the journalists oppressing their free news gathering activities. Although the authorities claim they are not engaged in tracing accounts, today's press situation is such that no one can say for sure when the authorities will decide to take advantage of all the information at their disposal. If the government and the NTS do not have any intention to use the tax audit as a tool to control the press, it would be desirable to immediately stop inquiries into newspaper distribution centers and the pursuit of journalists' personal financial accounts.