[TODAY]Media Freedom and Good GovernmentOn Newspaper Day in April, 1998, the year he took office, President Kim Dae-jung said in a speech commemorating the occasion that democracy in Korea would have not developed to its present extent were it not for newspapers and broadcasting.
"When asked whether he would choose government without newspapers or newspapers without government, Thomas Jefferson answered without hesitation that he would choose newspapers without government. I would also choose that way," President Kim said.
The 200-year-old quote from Mr. Jefferson, the third president of the United States, is rich in meaning, and only politicians who have a high intellect and are steeped in democratic ideals would cite it. President Kim, who aspired to be the "Thomas Jefferson of Korea," continued on that day, "Faithful criticism is more important than sweet words of praise. I accept it if people don't praise me for the good things I do. A president should not wish to hear only sweet words."
Only three years have passed since then, and President Kim's press control policies are driving major newspaper companies to a crisis.
The president's concept of the press has changed. In April 1999 he complained that the press exaggerated the assertions of politicians who advocate regionalism. He told the press that it should condemn the people who stir up regional conflicts as enemies of the public.
But then in November 2000, President Kim changed his position and lumped journalists together with politicians who espouse regional sentiments. In press conferences this year, he stressed the need to reform the press. He called on the people to "wake up and judge the press."
The government and the ruling party seem to blame the conservative press for the aggravation of regional conflicts and the sudden freeze in the development of relations between North and South Korea.
An English expression, "killing the messenger," developed from the stories of ancient Persian emperors who beheaded messengers who brought news of defeats during expeditions to Greece. The Korean press, which has reported conflicts among regions and the problems of North-South dialogue, is being blamed as the cause of those problems, just as the Persian messengers were blamed for being the bearers of bad news.
Chyung Dai-chul, an assemblyman of Millenium Democratic Party, lamented, "Korea is a place where everybody is sinner before the prosecution and a tax evader before the National Tax Service." Once a person is accused of a crime, his reputation is badly damaged, regardless of the outcome of the investigation or court trial.
The images of the three major newspaper companies, which were ordered to pay 85 billion won ($65.8 million) each in fines, will be ruined by public perception as well as by the financial penalty.
From watching similar cases unfold in the past, I am sure that the penalties will be reduced by the courts, but the images that were damaged when the tax service announced an 85 billion won penalty will not be fully restored. The problem will be worse for companies whose owners were accused as well.
Harsh words and unreasonable assertions are being aimed at the major newspapers. One assemblyman insisted that freedom of speech is not freedom of tax evasion. There are no journalists who assert such nonsense! Perhaps the speaker scored points with his political bosses, but his statement is rather childish for an assemblyman.
The government and the ruling party say that more than 80 percent of the public and 90 percent of working journalists approve of the government's press reform policies. If the word "reform" here means fixing something that is broken, 100 percent － not 90 percent － would agree. Who would oppose improving something? But the situation is different when the government attempts to control critical newspapers under the pretext of reform. According to a poll conducted by the Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation, which is leading the attack on the major newspapers, more than half the public believes the tax audit was indeed designed to muzzle the press.
The government insists that freedom of speech is different in concept from freedom of the media. That, however, is illogical: it tries to differentiate the contents of speech from the medium used to speak.
In today's financial structure, newspaper companies will inevitably fall under the government's supervision if they are saddled with heavy debts triggered by huge back tax bills. The newspapers can not be independent voices if their companies are not financially independent, just as a man under physical torture cannot enjoy freedom of thought.
If President Kim is successful in controlling critical newspapers through mobilizing broadcasters and friendly newspaper companies, he will have a government without newspapers, and he has said this is not what he wants.
The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
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