[INSIGHT]Newspapers Failing to Police Themselves

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[INSIGHT]Newspapers Failing to Police Themselves

April 7 will be the 45th anni-versary of Newspaper Day. It is troubling to celebrate this day under increasingly coercive pressure for reforms, with the tax office and the government antitrust body conducting intensive investigations into the press.

At the reception three years ago marking the first Newspaper Day since his inauguration, President Kim Dae-jung gave a stirring speech about democracy and freedom of press. He quoted from Thomas Jefferson, who said, "Given the choice between government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I would not hesitate to prefer newspapers." The editorial writers and columnists of key media organizations were later invited to the presidential Blue House. As the chairman of the Korea News Editors' Association at the time, I had to speak, and I said I hoped President Kim's strong belief in the freedom of press would not erode, as Jefferson's did after he became the U.S. president.

Judging from the ruling camp's so-called press document fingering the newspapers deemed "anti-government," the president's call for press reforms at a New Year's press conference, and the subsequent tax and antitrust investigations into the press, Mr. Kim seems to be following Jefferson's example. But Jefferson only ex-pressed his contempt in a personal letter to a friend, whereas Mr. Kim gives the impression of launching an all-out attack on the press.

Ever since the president publicly called for press reforms, the war of words staged by so-called progressive civic groups and media organizations under the government's influence has been fierce, with newspapers labeled in the press document as hostile to the ruling party as the specific targets.

True, there is a broad consensus on the need for reforms, and many are greatly unhappy with the press and highly critical of its role and behavior. Resentment is also rising against false, inaccurate, sensational and unfair reporting, as well as against amateurish and biased commentaries.

Government intervention in the press diminished after the June 29 declaration of democracy in 1987. In its place, the excessive power that company owners and large advertisers exert on newspaper production is an increasingly serious problem for the press.

The objective of press reform should lie in securing greater autonomy in editing and production, and in increasing the independence, fairness and responsibility of the press based on its greater freedom. To achieve this objective, some sectors of the society are calling for limiting the equity stake of large shareholders to 20 or 30 percent, and also for imposing in the newspaper market more stringent antitrust and fair-trade regulations than those ap-plied to other markets. Such de-mands not only run counter to the flow of the times toward easing regulations, but also may very likely violate the Constitution.

Securing independent editorial rights is an old agenda for the press, but some are making the unreasonable demand for the creation of committees half made up of labor representatives to exercise editorial rights. No such committees exist in any part of the world.

Enhancing and guaranteeing editorial autonomy is an essential task and also the prevailing trend in advanced countries. But it should be left to each media organization to devise and implement a method appropriate for its unique characteristics. This applies not only to editorial rights. It is also most effective for each newspaper company to autonomously pursue such reform tasks as ensuring greater ethics, management transparency and fair competition in newspaper sales and advertising, and blocking off external influence. The freedom and independence of the press is violated when the government mobilizes forces for its reform. Such efforts could end up ruining the press, not to mention the difficulties caused by resistance from the press.

But it is also true that the press has failed to inspire confidence that it will reform itself and enforce its own regulations. To keep in pace with its rising influence, the press voluntarily devised a code of press ethics and principles of implementation five years ago, but failed to comply with them properly. Newspapers can eliminate many of the criticisms of corruption, violation of privacy and inaccurate, sensational and unfair reporting just by properly complying with the ethics code.

Some people blame the newspapers for turning the code of ethics and the principles of implementation into a farce. The Korean Press Ethics Commission, which monitors compliance with the ethics code and the principles, also hands out extremely lenient sanctions. Some newspapers even neglect their duty to publish warnings the commission issued to them.

Failing to abide by the press ethics code can but raise doubts about news organizations' willingness and ability to carry out autonomous reforms and self-regulation. In order to safeguard their autonomy from external intervention, newspapers and journalists have to observe the ethics code and the principles of implementation they voluntarily devised five years ago on Newspaper Day.


The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Seong Byong-wook

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