[OUTLOOK]A president under a magic spellPresident Roh Moo-hyun seems to be trapped in some kind of spell concerning the media. Most of the president’s memorable comments since the new administration was launched were about the media, and the reaction to hearing many of them has been a sense of bafflement.
With so many urgent matters to take care of in this country, why is the president so obsessed with the media? Are there no other issues that Koreans should devote more time to thinking or worrying about? Are the media really the most serious problem here?
If the president is so concerned about the media that he can’t pay attention to anything else, maybe the media should seriously think about the problem as well. The press has a duty to cooperate in helping the president get out of this enchantment. How else would he be able to look after the other matters of the nation?
The media that the president criticizes the most are newspapers, in particular the three major newspapers: the JoongAng Ilbo, Chosun Ilbo and Dong-a Ilbo. What have these newspapers done that is so wrong that the president is attacking them in particular?
Three reasons can be postulated. First, while varying slightly in degree, these papers are the most critical of the present government. The president does not talk much about television, a medium with a larger capacity to reach the country. So it can be understood that the president is dissatisfied with these newspapers because they criticize the government and his administration.
The second reason is that these newspapers do not fit with the new government’s “color” or its so-called “code.” It could be called a clash between the media’s adherence to the more traditional conservatism here and the government’s pull toward the more progressive, a struggle between diversity and conformity. It could be that the president is uncomfortable with these newspapers because the underlying ideological beliefs they portray are different from those that he believes in personally.
The third reason could be found in the president’s personal negative perspective on the media. The president has often made remarks to that effect; he often talks about the tyranny of the media and all the wounds that were inflicted on him by the media.
Should the president be criticizing the media for the first and second reasons, the proper response should be to stand up to the administration. It is the duty of the media to report the rights and wrongs of the authorities, to break the mold and deliver diverse opinions to the public. Should the media have a duty to help the president break away from the spell he is under, it would have to be because of the third reason.
There are positive and negative sides to everything. The media are no exception. Along with the positive role of the media come darker side-effects. The light shined by the media is an essential element of democracy. Yet the media are not chosen by the people in an election or nominated to exercise its responsibilities. In that sense, the media could be criticized by some for lacking legitimacy. The answer to that complaint is simple, however. To enjoy the freedom of expression, the freedom of organization and other such basic rights guaranteed in a free democratic society, the freedom of the press must come first. The core of the freedom of expression is the media. That is why the media have become established as a part of the free democratic system.
The negative aspect of the media lurks in the process of exercising this freedom. It comes in the form of power, the power of the critic. President Roh has called this “uncontrolled power, untested power” and even “the tyranny of the privileged.” I will not say that this criticism was completely unjustified. There have been regrettable moments in the history of our media. Even now, we cannot say that there are no journalists who try to exercise this power. But not all media and not all journalists do so. There are many journalists who practice their profession with integrity through all kinds of hardships. That is how we could develop a media of this level that does not bow to the authorities. The president’s criticism of the media is unfair in that it only points out the negative points about the media without considering the contributions they have made to the democratization of our society.
How should the media react to the president’s criticism? Should they adamantly dig in their heels and cry “oppression”? No. They should streng-then their positive aspects and get rid of the shadows. They should not give the government reason for criticism. Media upheld by citizens who feel the need for a free press are not intimidated by the authorities. Media need the courage to admit their mistakes.
Korea’s media have a history of more than one hundred years. Even military dictatorships could not break them. We no longer have media that can be dragged around by the government. If President Roh thinks that he can mold the media to his liking, he is making a terrible mistake that will go down in history.
The media and the politically powerful should not be on good terms. It is part of the media’s duties to be critical. That is why the media cannot ask for a truce with the president to set him free from his spell. The only way to break the spell is for the media to shun the temptations of power and remain alert at all times.
* The writer is chief editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Moon Chang-keuk