[VIEWPOINT]Working together with the pressFew people can take criticism well. A nation’s president is even less likely to endure unfavorable comments coming from his subordinates or the press. The iron grasp on society imposed in the past by military dictatorships effectively stifled all attempts at free speech. Even as heads of democratically elected civilian governments, our presidents often resorted to repression and appeasement in their attempts to win favorable prose from the media. Employing indirect channels of interference to seat more administration-friendly journalists was the norm. Several heads of major newspapers were jailed after unfair tax inspections, and hefty fines were imposed on the most irritating media in a drive to suppress their business. Antagonizing the media critics and strangling legitimate voices left and right were all pursued under the lofty title of enhancing the freedom of the press.
The new administration of president Roh Moo-hyun is taking a different course in approaching the press. President Roh’s two predecessors would resort to private back channels and surreptitious glances to express their discontent with the media, but this incumbent is direct and unsubtle. Only a couple of days ago, he expressed his unambiguous dissatisfaction with the performance of the media. “Saying this is a bit embarrassing, but everything seems to be functioning quite well until you read the morning papers. Social unrest, labor disputes, or any other topic ― all have seen major strides since I took office,” the president asserted. It seems odd to say that we are gaining ground on major points of societal deadlock, especially in light of the disastrous conclusion to the labor strife involving cargo and freight workers or the gridlock over the NEIS and Chohung Bank disputes. Certainly, we’ve had labor disputes and street demonstrations in the past. But back then, we trusted the government to impose a rule of law and principle. This administration appears to be backtracking on this tradition by leaning excessively towards organized labor, a trend that was apparent in the government’s mishandling of recent disputes. Even while the administration’s policy makers continue to exacerbate the situation, the president continues to point his finger at the media for apparently bending the facts and distorting his view.
Another characteristic of president Roh’s media approach is his tendency to label specific news outlets as either friend or foe. He attends conferences hosted by friendlier companies, grants them special interviews on other occasions, but the more discomforting ones are driven away. A more respectable position would be to magnanimously accept legitimate criticism while using open and legal recourses to rein in excessive or factually incorrect views. President Roh himself reassured the public of such an approach. But the president’s view that the press is the culprit is merely another ploy to put pressure on media companies by expressing animosity towards unfavorable groups while rewarding and befriending more pliable ones.
Another departure from the past comes from the position taken up by the major newspapers. During the wee hours of the past two administrations, the media was unable to mount effective offenses against the government. The fear of civilian dictatorship was enough to suppress any blatant criticism of the administration in power. President Roh, however, invited public criticism from the very days of the transition. The North Korean nuclear row, continuing candlelight vigils, an unstable U.S.-Korean alliance, uncertainty exhibited by the ruling party, not to mention the incumbent’s mercurial foreign policy stance: All were enough to cause uneasiness in the public and spur media critics to raise their voices. If these myriad uncertainties seemed to subside after his Washington visit, President Roh has much to thank the press for. After frittering away precious time, only recently has the administration been successful in drafting a labor policy that clings to the rule of law. The president is fortunate to have been given a crash course in the realities of office thanks to his edgy dealings with the press.
The real test, however, begins now. There seems to be no sign of Korea escaping its economic slump, and within its destabilizing grip are sown the seeds of social unrest. Such trying times do not demand a confrontation between the government and the media. It is only the intrinsic right of the press to check the unfettered corners of political power and provide accessible avenues of commentaries based on facts.
Deliberate attempts to undermine or slander a democratically elected president with an unquestionable mandate a mere 120 days into office should be condemned. Requesting the administration to do something while showing an uncompromising “anti-Roh” or “anti-North Korea” stance is a departure from the inherent virtues of the right to a free press. Such an approach may even harness another form of unfettered absolute power.
Now that the veil of uncertainty has been lifted from the new administration, the next step should be to compromise the opposing views of the president and the media. President Roh should express gratitude for having established a more solid bedrock upon which to pursue his policy goals, a development attributable to the no-frills position of the media. Taking sides and pitting one media outlet against another should be shunned. The media, for its part, must refrain from cornering the president and acknowledge that a diversified and multi-centric society calls for a cooperative stance to aid in genuine reform efforts. Rather than engaging in a simplistic and untenable drive to undermine the president, giving him ample time and patience to lay out his road map is necessary. Succumbing to this country’s recent woes may cripple not only the president himself, but the media and the entire nation as well.
* The writer is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kwon Young-bin