Don’t read all about it!The relationship between Korea’s newspapers and the government has historically been akin to a roller coaster-like ride.
There has been oppression of the press, but newspapers have also exercised enough power to cause a ruling government’s collapse.
One thing is certain: for the last 50 years, a tense ― and intense ― love-hate relationship has existed between the government and this country’s leading broadsheets.
Previous administrations thought that running the country would be an exercise in futility without an effective way to control the papers. The papers, on the other hand, competed by aggressively pressuring the government, hoping to lure more readers.
The new leadership at the Blue House has introduced a new wave of tension between the government and newspaper organizations. In particular, Korea’s three major newspapers companies ― The Chosun Ilbo, JoongAng Ilbo and Dong-A Ilbo ― are in the spotlight of the silent war now unfolding.
Former President Kim Dae-jung had maintained a thorny relationship with the three major newspapers, which are collectively known by the abbreviation “Cho Joong Dong.” Nevertheless, there were also times during his political career when the newspapers’ writers and editorials assisted him. He had gotten flak as well as support from these masters of print journalism.
In the case of President Roh Moo-hyun, the roots of his dislike for the major newspapers were apparent. His close aides agree that one of the engines of Mr. Roh’s success in the presidential campaign was his call to arms against the major newspapers’ influence.
When the big three bombarded Mr. Roh, his popularity rose, and stayed up high thanks to less-prominent media such as the Internet.
Through his struggle with the press, Mr. Roh has carved out a clear identity as a progressive politician representing the average man by contrasting himself with the three major newspapers, which he portrayed as representing the conservative camp.
To understand the three major newspapers’ power, one has to understand their scope of influence in the Korean newspaper market.
Combined, these three command a readership of 5 million, which accounts for 70 percent of the national newspaper market. Annual sales have reached the 1.3 trillion won ($108 billion) mark, with net profits hovering around 90 billion won. Consider that out of Korea’s 10 leading dailies, exclusive of the Cho Joong Dong trio, total sales revenue of the other seven amounts to just one-third of the top three papers.
Ironically, the power of the three musketeers only swells during economic downturns. Advertisers, well aware of their immense readership and influence, tend to concentrate spending on the big three to maximize their opportunity cost. So in the newspaper market, it seems, the rich papers get richer while the poor and powerless tend to decline further.
Former President Kim Dae-jung exercised pressure on the newspapers by probing into tax issues. But Mr. Roh has not yet begun his offensive.
“The newspaper reforms that the president envisions have their limits as the ruling party is a minority in the National Assembly,” one government official says of the current situation. “This situation will continue at least until next year’s elections. So taking measures such as limiting newspaper ownership through lawmaking is not a realistic option under the current situation.”
Bringing on change via the legal and political system has its limits, officials point out. This helps explain why the government has introduced measures such as taking over control of access to press rooms in certain government agencies. From time immemorial, a select number of established media organizations decided which other news organizations would be admitted or not.
Introducing change in the reporting method and opting for a briefing system is one way the Roh Moo-hyun government has dealt with the powerful newspapers.
At an April 2 speech at the National Assembly, Mr. Roh termed the press a dangerous entity because its power went unchecked. He emphasized that the state of Korea’s press, with a few large papers monopolizing the market, only exacerbated the problem.
The distinction between the current administration and its predecessors is that it has decided to confront all news reports judged to be false. The government has even set guidelines for categorizing every media report.
One example of the government’s attitude toward the press is its desire to end the custom of printing “false” articles as top stories one day, followed by correction articles as small as postage stamps the following day.
Over the long term, Mr. Roh’s press policy seeks to weaken the influence of the Cho Joong Dong trio, while strengthening the so-called “minor” newspapers, Internet and broadcast media.
“President Roh has divided newspapers into major and minor papers,” explains Kim Woo-ryong, a professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. “Those that fall into the major category, he views as problematic. His strategy is to clamp down on Cho Joong Dong.”
Media experts suggest that the government is purposely helping other media outlets in an indirect way. One oft-cited example of the Roh administration’s favoritism toward media outlets outside the big three occurred immediately after Mr. Roh’s inauguration, when he offered his first interview to Internet news channel OhmyNews, and the less-prominent Munhwa Ilbo was the first newspaper to obtain an interview. Also in recent months, smaller newspapers such as the liberal-leaning Hankyoreh have posted an increase in exclusive reports, media watchers report.
Nevertheless, the Blue House denies giving anyone preferential treatment. Yang Chung-cheol, a government official, explains that the interview with the Munhwa Ilbo stemmed from an agreement made during the presidential campaign.
Lee Chang-kyu, chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo, views the Roh government’s press reform as a positive step, although he sees the president as being overly sensitive.
“If a certain media has great influence on the public but makes a mistake there has to be a correction,” he says. “Nevertheless, talking about reform while maintaining an aggressive and sensitive view of certain media outlets is not a good approach for discussing reform.”
Calling specific media either friendly or antagonistic toward the government, he adds, totally ignores the paper’s readership. “I don’t think that if there is such a paper or broadcaster out there that it can survive,” says Mr. Lee. “Whether the government does a good job or a bad one, the job of the paper is just to talk about it. A good or bad relationship with the government? The moment the JoongAng Ilbo starts to think about something like that, it will go down.”
by Han Ki-hong, Kwon Tae-dong, Koh Seong-pyo