[EDITORIALS]A Statement on the Press Crisis

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[EDITORIALS]A Statement on the Press Crisis

The National Tax Service announced the outcome of the recent media tax probes, unparalleled in Korean history, and finished its reports to the prosecutors. Despite the intentions of the government, the JoongAng Ilbo expresses regret to its readers and to the nation for the concern the incident has caused them.

At this point, we, the JoongAng Ilbo, would like to state clearly our position on the current crisis confronting the Korean press and how we plan to overcome such an unprecedented trial before our readers and the nation. Ultimately, we will try our best to establish a sound relationship between the political arena and the press. Freedom of the press and transparency in managing press companies are two precious values that should be pursued simultaneously.

Press companies in Korea struggled for their freedom under oppressive dictatorship and at the same time fought to survive in the market as small and medium companies. We sought not only to provide prompt information and accurate editorials to readers, faithfully fulfilling the role of the press, but we also have to face the reality of sales and operations to survive as a business; we do not deny our disgraceful history in which light and shadow coexisted.

The JoongAng Ilbo has already announced and carried out reform measures in order to modernize sales and reinforce transparency of management with deep humility in front of our readers. In order to achieve independence as a press company, we completed our separation from the Samsung Group and soon will join the Audit Bureau of Circulation in order to heighten fairness in sales and competition and correct outdated sales practices.

In order to separate management from our editorial department, an editors' council determines editorial positions. We have outside directors to improve transparency in management. We have consistently carried out voluntary reform efforts to escape from old customs and practices, and such attempts will continue in the future.

We have repeatedly argued that press companies cannot reject fair tax investigations and should always respect the obligation of paying taxes. But how can we say that this new taxation is fair and unrelated to an attempt to control the press, when the government applied the law unreasonably? Why is it focusing on practices which were necessary for survival in the past and collecting enormous and unbearable amounts of back taxes to threaten the existence of newspaper companies?

Free promotional copies are a part of a marketing strategy, based on characteristics of the press. Because about 20 percent of the national population moves every year, promotional copies are a way to let the readers take a look at the newspaper first and then make their choices. If the government imposes enormous amounts of tax on such free copies by counting them as taxable entertainment expenses of distributors, how can any press company possibly be survive?

New regulations applying to newspapers took effect Sunday, and the government will not allow press firms to offer free copies exceeding 20 percent of their paid circulation. If we yielded and accepted such a regulation, it is fair for the government to apply the new taxation rules on free copies from then on. Yet, the government counted free copies circulated years ago and slapped a total of 68.8 billion won ($53 million) of taxes on all press companies. How can we say that the recent media tax investigation was fair and respected the law and principles?

The JoongAng Ilbo, in particular, suffered from severe intervention by the government twice under this administration. Two years ago, the publisher of the newspaper was investigated and arrested after a tax probe, but the government argued that the charge was tax evasion - not an attempt to gag the press. Prosecutors charged the publisher with improper acquisition of stock.

Immediately after the incident, suggestions made by Mun Il-hyeon, a former reporter at the newspaper, on how to control the press became available to public, fueling the suspicion that the attack was led by the core of the administration in order to gag a critical press voice.

At that time, we repeatedly warned other press companies that the JoongAng Ilbo was the victim of a plan to control the press, and tax probes were a part of such a plan. Other newspapers did not listen to our warning, instead arguing that tax evasion by a company is a separate issue from oppression of the press.

Nothing has changed since that time. Although the number of subjects of the investigations was increased and the amount of back taxes demanded was higher than in the past, there is no change in our view that such government moves are nothing more than a measure to gag critics among the press.

The only difference from the past may be that the previous investigation was targeted only at the JoongAng Ilbo and the recent probes were aimed to striking a fatal blow against a number of press companies so that their businesses cannot possibly survive. We have been victimized for two times. Do we still have to wonder whether the government actions are aimed at reform or at oppression?

The function of the press to criticize and supervise political power is the life of the press itself. A government which fails to understand that the media are critics cannot exist in a democratic society. The press, representing public opinion of a democratic society, is of course diverse by nature. Some newspapers are conservative while others are liberal. Each of them has its own voice and presents criticism and alternatives in order to develop the government and the country.

We seriously doubt this administration's ability and qualifications to lead a democratic society if it can not stand the diverse voices and criticism of the press. Instead, it has resorted to threats against the very existence of newspaper companies by imposing enormous additional taxes and threats of detaining publishers.

At this point, we also proclaim to all media companies that the current situation can never benefit the development of our press as a whole. Currently, broadcasting companies are blaming the newspapers for wrongdoings and small newspaper companies, which happen to adopt the positions and the press views of the current administration, are castigating the large newspapers for their wrongdoings.

As media companies divide into groups and slander each other like dogs fighting in the mud, and some civic organizations join in the defamation, the people cannot determine who is right and who is wrong. Such chaos should never be allowed. Even if only a small number in the press argue that the government is trying to gag the press, all the media should join in a common effort to investigate the truth. Yet, the reality of the Korean press is that it is a fractured social institution on which the government felt free to impose what it calls "reform" and "collection of fair taxation." When the government calls for reform, some in the press agree, and when it calls for fair taxation, some in the press echo the government words.

Without solidarity and awareness that punitive measures against one organ can be used against all the others, the press can never be free from oppression by political power. Now is the time for the press to understand such a danger. We again confirm that we will do our best to meet our responsibilities as a news organization with firm determination, regardless of the direction this press crisis takes.
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