[VIEWPOINT]Free Press Means Better Government

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[VIEWPOINT]Free Press Means Better Government

The Korean government's tax probe on newspapers has not escaped the attention of the international community. Freedom House, which monitors democratization, graded Korea's level of press regulation as 27 (out of 100 points; the lower the score the freer the press). Its report says Korean officials use "subtle forms of persuasion" to dilute press criticism. North Korea received 100 points. Countries that receive more than 30 points are categorized as nations where freedom of the press is restricted. Korea narrowly escaped that classification, but in reports to be released by Freedom House in 2001, Korea's rating will exceed 30 points because of tax audits, the tracking of bank accounts of reporters and the resurrection of regulations on the business practices by newspaper companies, which, it says, exceed the level of "subtle persuasion." Korea may in fact be treated as the subject of a special analysis, for actually moving in a counter-democratic direction.

The U.S. State Department has reported that although the Korean government has given up direct control of the press, it exercises indirect regulation and intensively lobbies reporters and editors. The United States will perceive this year's tax probe against the press and others as intensive press control, aggravating already strained South Korea-U.S. relations. As a matter of fact, three members of the U.S. House of Representatives, including Christopher Smith, chairman of the House Committee on International Operations and Human Rights, expressed concerns about the Korean government's treatment of the press. The International Press Institute is also scrutinizing the press policies of Kim Dae-jung administration.

International organizations have perceived the problems of the Korean press already. They consider it very important that the freedom of the press also improves when the rules of the political power game become fairer, as the role of press has been upgraded when the political system was changed from dictatorship to democracy. Even in advanced capitalist societies, there are unavoidable tensions and conflicts between the twin goals of the privately owned press of criticizing power on one hand and pursuing profits on the other.

Third-world press organs confront an even more serious dilemma. They are forced to choose between two mutually contradictory alternatives. In order to survive, they must at times compromise in the face of corrupt politics and incessant pressures and temptations. But the press must also supervise and criticize to survive. For the press to escape its hypocritical image, fair rules imposed by the government should be accepted as general values of society. Democracy is only our best option, but it has many flaws. And absolute freedom of speech in democracy also carries risks. Democracy is the process of modification through criticism.

Therefore, press control poses a greater threat to democracy than corruption. When criticism by the press is suppressed, reforms are impossible, and both press and the power are losers. When the press is critical of the political administration, it is at the same time levelling the same criticisms at itself, which results in the reform of both politics and press. Therefore, there are procedures to follow in reform that require time and precise technique. A nebulous approach leads to disaster. For instance, the Korean public is dazed by the government's incompetence in handling medical reform, but the government always feels the impulse to control the press, which criticizes this error in administration.

The Korean press should inspect the fairness of its own reports to maintain its dignity. But the administration, which is the primary object of reform, should not force the press into self-censorship by threatening a crackdown. A nation cannot prosper when freedom of speech is not guaranteed. Therefore, the productive life of an administration loathe to accept criticism is itself shortened.


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The writer is a professor of political science at Myongji University.



by Ahn Young-sop

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