[OUTLOOK]Muzzling the press is dangerousOur new “government of public participation” is taking the media to task frequently. The president has declared a “war” on the media over incorrect reporting and seemed to reinforce his determination to take on the media when he told the new head of the Govern-ment Information Agency that he had a rough road ahead of him.
As if they had been waiting for this moment, government agencies and the Blue House have announced that they will issue press permits, enforce rules requiring the media to name their sources and forbid any visits to government offices. Instead, information will come through press briefings. Many of the changes the agencies have announced are rough and seem hastily decided.
At the same time, government agencies have received order from above to report the content of media coverage to the Blue House. The president has even showed details of how to identify wrong reports and ways to counter them.
The government of South Korea seems ready to take on the national media with the same relentless readiness that the U.S. government is showing against Iraq.
The dictionary definition of a war is the use of military power against an enemy. War is inevitably accompanied by killing and destruction. Winner or loser, all have to pay a terrible price. That is why war is considered evil in civilized societies. To declare a war on the media might correct the mistakes of the media to a certain extent, but the chilling threat it imposed would also restrain the freedom of the press and the fundamental functions of the media. This would, in turn, lead to curbs on the people's right to know, which would be a national calamity. An overbearing demand for responsibility by the media would lead to “defensive journalism,” that is, a passive journalism in which the media shies away from reporting with conviction about public matters of interest that the public should know.
The right to know in the media includes the right to collect and circulate information freely without government interference, and to demand the publication of information held by government agencies. It is hard for the individual to know the exact contents of government policy decisions and implementations. This is especially so in situations such as the Kim Dae-jung government’s involvement in secret money transfers to North Korea. The media has a social obligation to act for the people in exercising their right to know.
Of course, the right to know does not justify bad reporting, but the government is using instances of inaccuracy to put restraints on information and to justify interference in the media. Blaming bad reporting is a cover-up of an attempt to control the free circulation of information.
Providing information through press kits and briefings would mean that no matter how open these opportunities are to the members of the media, the provider of the information maintains tight control on what is disseminated. The information providers would be able to dodge difficult questions at briefings or get away with giving vague answers.
Such concerns have already been partially corraborated in the briefing sessions with the new Blue House spokeswoman. On sensitive issues, her stock answer seems to be “I don’t know.” Forbidding journalists to visit government offices to gather information for reporting is an action that goes against the government’s claim of being an “open government.”
The reporter’s life is in legwork. He or she sometimes gets information through press kits and briefings, but also runs around here and there to find the hidden story. Indirect reportage through official mouthpieces and reporting under new systems in which news sources ― bureaucrats ― should be identified by name would only mean a system of “journalism by announcement.”
The journalist would not be able to verify the truth of the information provided by the source and thus would have to depend considerably on the source for the interpretation and analysis of that information. In this case, the report could wrongly reflect the interests of the information provider instead of being objective.
The dependence on announcements for reporting would also weaken the journalist’s sense of mission and critical spirit; they would become nothing more than messengers. Such a taming of the media would be a serious loss to the public.
Democracy requires public officials to be under constant and scrupulous vigilance by the people. One of the indispensable mechanisms for meeting this requirement of democracy is a free media. The government must acknowledge this and submit itself to the inconvenience that follows. Granted that there are evil influences on society caused by the commercialism of the media, this is still far less dangerous than the abuse of power by those in the government.
It is an accepted principle of law in democratic societies that a report that turns out to be slightly inaccurate should be exempt from punishment if it was made in the public interest. That would provide some breathing space for the media. The media is ultimately judged by its readers, the consumers in the market of free ideas. Judgments of the media should not be based on the concept of brutal war and hostility.
Leave the judgment of accuracy to the market, through such mechanisms as civic movements, the natural convergence of ethical principles, the ombudsman and old-fashioned complaints about inaccurate coverage.
* The writer, a former president publisher of the JoongAng Ilbo, is chairman of the Korean Association for Volunteer Efforts and a professor of mass communications at Sejong University.
by Geum Chang-tae