[TODAY]No One-Shot Answer to Press Oppression

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[TODAY]No One-Shot Answer to Press Oppression

The history of press freedom demonstrates that freedom is not just given but is won through continuous struggle. The freedom of the press enjoyed today in countries that have an advanced media culture, such as the United States and Great Britain, is the result of the confrontation between political power trying to muzzle the press and press resistance to curbs on its watchdog role.

Governments have always seen taxation as an expedient weapon. One early example of press control by taxation is an incident in England in 1712. In response to a message from Queen Anne, Parliament imposed a tax on all newspapers and advertisements. The main purpose of these taxes was to suppress the publication of comments and criticism objectionable to the crown, but these taxes were one of the factors that aroused the American colonists to protest against taxation by Great Britain. The American revolution began when, in 1765, London required a tax stamp to be affixed to newspapers, advertisements and legal papers.

The press control strategy of the Kim Dae-jung government seems to be focused on tax investigations of major newspapers, with heavy coverage of the investigations by government-influenced television news and smaller newspapers, then the levy of heavy tax burdens on papers deemed critical of major policies of President Kim, as well as humiliating the newspapers by arresting their owners and publishers.

In short, President Kim's press policy is the egalitarian leveling of the status of newspapers, large and small, by helping smaller newspapers to increase their circulation, advertising revenues and influence through artificial reduction of circulation, advertising income and influence of the big three papers - Chosun Ilbo, JoongAng Ilbo and Donga Ilbo.

President Kim, in fact, revealed his true feelings on the issue in an interview with Newsweek magazine last April.

"Newspapers should play fair in attracting more readers and advertising, and all companies should have equal opportunity so that not just a few newspapers monopolize readers and advertisements," the president said, adding that the government would intervene in this area.

It was right after the president talked about the need for media reform at a press conference early this year that the tax probe and investigations by the Fair Trade Commission began. In a country whose "Imperial President" wields almost almighty power, could there be a head of the National Tax Service, Fair Trade Commission chairman and prosecutor general who would ignore such a presidential statement?

The United States has also seen government attempts to gag unfriendly press organs through selective taxation. But those efforts ended in failure. In the 1980s, the state of Minnesota levied taxes on the use of newsprint and ink by newspaper companies, while exempting from such taxes some smaller newspapers that used small amounts of those products. The crux of the issue was that the government attempted to control critical big newspapers while trying to raise the status of minor newspapers.

The Minneapolis Tribune, which was hit with two-thirds of the total new tax, won a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the discriminatory taxation of specific newspapers violated the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The ruling is with us as a firm precedent against the use of taxes as a means to control unfriendly media and persons.

When the British government abolished prior censorship in the late 17th century, that was thought to be the end of press control by the government. But the succeeding centuries also saw attempts to control the press through taxation in England and elsewhere; thus the Minnesota case and the predicament of major papers of Korea.

If we look at the history of freedom of speech and control of the press, which are two sides of the same coin, we can see that attempts by political power to control the press will exist as long as there are governments and press. By its nature, the press has to deal with tense relations with government. The painful experience of the big three Korean newspapers will certainly be repeated.

But the government of President Kim overlooks one essential point: owners are not the sum total of newspapers. Newspapers will never change with changes of owners or publishers. Reporters will not be silenced by arresting their owners.

The government of President Kim will have to live with the criticism that the tax probe and punishment of newspaper owners were politically motivated. It may find consolation in the hoped-for prospect that the incident, from tax probe to arrest and trial of newspaper owners may, in the long run, make future newspapering more transparent.


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The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Young-hie

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