[NOTEBOOK]Ruling Party's Hand There for All to See

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[NOTEBOOK]Ruling Party's Hand There for All to See

President Kim Dae-jung defended the tax investigation into the media firms at a cabinet meeting on July 2.

"The investigation was perfectly fair and square. There was no interference from outside. Neither will there be any pressure on the prosecution's investigation, which will provide the media with an opportunity to become more transparent and healthy."

It was the first time President Kim Dae-jung had commented on the probe since his New Year's address on Jan. 11. The opposition Grand National Party immediately took the president to task over his statement, contending that it revealed his intention to guide the prosecutors' investigation. It is, of course, of overwhelming importance that the investigation be conducted fairly, without any outside interference.

The senior presidential secretaries reportedly have been acting very discreetly since President Kim Dae-jung underlined his position on the matter, appearing to affirm his professed distance from the inquiry with their silence. But for about 15 executive members of the ruling Millennium Democratic Party, it's a different matter. They had no qualms about expressing their opinions at a meeting last Wednesday. Maybe they believe this a better expression of loyalty.

Some boomed that all party members agree that the "corrupt" owners of media firms should be dealt with sternly. Others trumpeted that of course family-controlled media firms gained unfair profits, and that this could do no other than hurt press freedom. Underlying all the proclamations was the assertion that the media as a whole is guilty and penalizing it is natural.

The prosecution has not yet started its investigation. No one should yet be putting the media on trial. But despite this and despite the party president's emphasis on his non-intervention, the ruling party is already braying for heads to roll. And the ruling party has already decided that back taxes levied on media firms as a result of the National Tax Service's investigation, unreasonable as it was, can now be viewed as evaded taxes.

The ruling party is taking the offensive for obvious reasons: it feels uneasy about the presidential election coming up next year. Remarks by ruling party executives emphasize this defensiveness and unease. Some of them liken opposition party members to "bodyguards" hired by the family-controlled media firms to shield them in the National Assembly. They accused members of the Grand National Party of taking the side of the media firms despite their "tax evasion" to get help in the presidential election in return.

It seems that the ruling party believes the media firms charged with tax evasion are determined to support the opposition party in the presidential election next year. If that happens, the chance that the ruling party's hard-won political power will be taken away grows. Of course, then, the ruling party is determined to stamp out the liaison between the opposition party and the media.

The attitude of the ruling party is the key to why the tax audits on the media companies started in the first place. It insists it is pursuing justice in taxation, but the evidence shows the tax probe was really politically driven, in full consideration of the coming presidential election. The probe is just the ruling party flexing its muscles.

But why does it need to pound its chest? We already know the ruling party is the heavyweight in the ring. The media firms have been slapped with "back taxes" of 505.6 billion won ($389 million), and have been asked to pay a further 24.2 billion won by the Fair Trade Commission. The owners of some media firms have been reported to the prosecution. Who the weak are is obvious. But the ruling party, the assaulter, continues its steady pressure on the prosecution to make sure the media's throat is cut.

The truth will come out - eventually. The ruling party should heed the following: If it doesn't want to be discovered influencing the investigation, it should sit back, and stay out of it.


The writer is a senior political news reporter of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Gyo-joon

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