[EDITORIALS]A Disgrace to Kim and Korea

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[EDITORIALS]A Disgrace to Kim and Korea

The International Press Institute's executive board has decided to place South Korea on its "watch list." South Korea thus becomes the first member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to be subject to twice-yearly inspections by the institute. Russia, Sri Lanka and Venezuela are other countries on the list. The decision is a disgrace not only to President Kim Dae-jung, who received the Nobel Peace Price for contributing to democratization and the improvement of human rights, but also to our country.

What happened to Mr. Kim's pride in leading a country where press freedom has fully bloomed? What has led us to this lamentable condition? Is it, as the government insists, really a problem of the International Press Institute's unfair and one-sided standards and its meddling in a country's domestic affairs?

A joint delegation of the International Press Institute and the World Association of Newspapers came to Korea to investigate the press crisis and held a news conference Thursday in Seoul to say that they believe the recent press oppression was politically motivated.

"It could not be a coincidence that tax probes on all media companies began immediately after the president had mentioned press reform at a press conference," said Johann P. Fritz, director of the International Press Institute. Months-long tax inquiries with hundreds of investigators, enormous assessments of back taxes and the arrests of some newspaper owners, he said, can only be seen as an attempt to gag the critical press.

The Government Information Agency insists that the investigations followed normal procedures and that the laws were fairly executed. It complained that it was unfair for the institute to announce Korea's watch-listing before concluding its inspection. "The International Press Institute should investigate itself first," the ruling party sneered.

President Kim, who benefited from the foreign press under the past military regimes, knows better than anyone that press freedom is a universal value of the human race. He should have met the visitors and stated his case instead of refusing to be interviewed. When they deplored the government's detention of newspaper owners when there is no concern of escape or destruction of evidence, the president should have provided a reasonable explanation. It is unfortunate that the government reacted emotionally, rather than trying to clear away the suspicions.

As we have repeatedly stressed, media companies can never be exempted from tax scrutiny; where there are wrong management and editorial practices they must be corrected. Still, press reform should be voluntary; it should never be forced by the government and state authority.

The government argues that reorganizing the ownership structure of newspapers is the ultimate goal of press reform. That is getting things backwards. President Kim should allay international society's suspicions that there is an attempt to muzzle the voice of the independent media.
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