&#91OUTLOOK&#93Attacks on media could backfire

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&#91OUTLOOK&#93Attacks on media could backfire

The conflict between the government and the press in Korea is one of those never-ending stories for which there would appear to be no conceivable solution that could come close to resolving the problem.
After Kim Dae-jung cited the need for media reform in a New Year’s press conference more than two years ago, the government opened fire on some of the biggest media chieftains, humiliating them by jailing them while they awaited trial for failing to pay all their taxes. They eventually were freed, after having been found guilty and given huge fines. Although the cases against them may have had merit, the message seemed clear: Those who opposed the government faced drastic penalties, including removal by law of their power to decide the editorial policies of their own newspapers.
Now President Roh Moo-hyun, in his first address to the National Assembly, has again raised the issue of the media, criticizing newspapers for unfair attacks on the government under Kim Dae-jung and in the opening period of his own presidency. On the basis of these remarks and the example set by prosecutors during the Kim Dae-jung era, one has every reason to expect action against large newspapers in the near future. The question will be how far the government is prepared to go in cracking down on organizations that have the sympathy of some of the country’s most powerful business interests as well as the support of many members of the largest political force, the conservative Grand National Party.
We may expect a test of wills in which the real loser may be the freedom of the media to report and comment as an independent voice free from government control.
In conversations with media critics, it is easy to sympathize with some of their complaints. Reform-minded intellectuals, particularly at universities, are often idealists who envision a perfect world in which newspapers are inevitably unbiased, all sides are treated fairly, constructive criticism is appreciated and malicious commentary expunged. The reformists, however, wind up defeating their own arguments by calling for committees to judge the contents of the papers, by proposing reviews of the content, by demanding guarantees for defense against unfair attacks, and by calling for an end to the hereditary ownership of the large media organizations. What they fail to realize is that they are basically developing an elaborate regimen for press control under the typical rationale of authoritative rulers everywhere. The ultimate consequence of such a program for reform is, at best, the taming of the press into bland subservience to government policy and, at worst, the transformation of independent newspapers into government organs.
Though it may appear to accuse the Big Three newspapers, JoongAng Ilbo, Chosun Ilbo and Dong A Ilbo, of anti-government bias as reflected in some of their columns and editorials, it is also true that these newspapers carry many interesting articles full of information that may not please the government but do keep people informed. In conversations with newspaper readers, I have often heard people refer to these newspapers as valuable sources of news that they are unable to find in smaller newspapers that seem inclined to toe the government line in order to guarantee their own survival. Articles on North Korea in particular have exposed the horrors of life there in terms that government officials, zealous in their pursuit of reconciliation with the North, do not want to recognize or publicize.
In contrast, Hankyoreh no doubt provides a healthy antidote to the views of the Big Three and has exposed some of the great ironies of Korean life, past and present, particularly with articles showing the relationship between influential Koreans, including newspaper publishers, and the Japanese colonial regime. Hankyoreh, however, does not publish enough real news to suit the tastes of the mass of readers who look to newspapers for information rather than views and has come to be regarded as a champion of the forces that would curb the Big Three. Imagine how different the intellectual environment here would be if all newspapers had to adopt the same policies as Hankyoreh, founded in high-minded response to military-dominated regimes that ruled the media by censorship and intimidation.
The real danger confronting the media is that much of it already reflects heavy government influence. The two largest television networks, the 24-hour cable news network, an English-language cable network and the nation’s only news agency are all under varying degrees of government control or ownership. In addition, reporters who cover government ministries and agencies, including the Blue House, often seem to write similar articles and, in the case of news about missions to North Korea, submit to a pool reporting system that snuffs out initiative.
Given the ease with which officials seem to get what they want into the papers, one wonders why the government would have banned reporters from their offices. The real problem was not that reporters were intruding where they were not wanted but that they were getting too friendly with their sources, too receptive to their views and too easily manipulated by them.
The instinct of people in power, in any society, is to control the media under the guise of fairness and honesty. Chun Doo Hwan, one of the most corrupt leaders in Korean history, shut down newspapers and news agencies with impunity on the premise that these conflicting, disputatious, annoying voices were impeding government policy and acting against the will of the people. It would be a terrible irony if the reform-minded liberals in charge of the government were so short-sighted as to fall into the trap of the dictatorial leaders against whom many of them demonstrated on the streets of Seoul and other large cities a generation ago. The press may not be perfect, and debate about its role can be constructive.
Attempts to suppress the media, however, risk quite the opposite effect, defeating the ideals that the reformists uphold while promoting the interests of those to whom the press is a tool for perpetuation of their own power.

* The writer is the Seoul correspondent of the International Herald Tribune.

by Don Kirk
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