[FORUM]The media must remain watchdogsThese days, reality seems to be more fictional and shocking than a novel. The suicide of a chairman of a business conglomerate has led those who had criticized the behavior of the conglomerates to lead the way in immortalizing the deceased. The outlawed student group Hanchongryun assaulted a U.S. military armored vehicle during a training session. Had the situation turned worse at the training base with the actual firing of weapons, injuring or killing people, it could have led to a terrible tragedy.
As indicated in the detention warrant for Kwon Roh-kap, a former Millennium Democratic Party supreme council member, the methods that the Hyundai Group allegedly used to send him 20 billion won ($16.7 million) in bribes were reminiscent of a spy movie. With the detention of Mr. Kwon, there is hardly anyone left among former President Kim Dae-jung’s family and friends who has not been indicted on corruption charges. And this comes from an administration that emphasized morality and reform. Even given all the jaded business deals, it was still mind-boggling to find out that Mr. Kwon and Hyundai allegedly came up with the idea of preparing 20 billion won all in cash. It was all the more shocking to know that Mr. Kwon would have wrung all that money out of a company that was about to go down any day.
While this news in itself was enough to shock the public, there was more to come. In an embarrassing development, an incumbent president has brought an action for damages against the four major newspapers, including the JoongAng Ilbo, for reporting on the allegations of suspected real estate dealings of the people around him. It is hard to deny that the honor of President Roh Moo-hyun and those around him were seriously damaged by such reports. It is not difficult to understand the president’s resentment.
Yet, it is a completely different question whether the way the president acted is just and desirable. The highest-ranking officer of the state cannot file a claim for damages during his term without considering the effect this will have. This would undoubtedly discourage media reports on the central authorities and thus restrain the freedom of the press. In the worst case, it would mean blocking an efficient way to prevent corruption on the part of the president or those around him. Realistically, it is difficult for the media to present definite proof even after they hear allegations of suspicions about those surrounding power. But the damage of letting these things pass unnoticed falls on the country and the people. There have not been many precedents worldwide of an incumbent head of state suing the media for reasons such as these.
This incident, moreover, was started by the litigation between those on the side of the president and a National Assembly member, not under the leadership of the media. This lawmaker had continuously presented allegations against those surrounding the president and the media had reported on such allegations. In the process, the inappropriate reaction of the Blue House and people involved had blown these allegations out of proportion. Why should the media take responsibility for the allegations of a lawmaker that even the prosecution found legitimate?
Mr. Roh and the government party presented all kinds of allegations against the opposition candidate and those around him during the presidential election. The media reported on these allegations. Most of the allegations were ruled to have no grounds. What is the president’s position on the media’s reporting of these “false” statements made by his side? This shows that Mr. Roh’s lawsuit is self-contradictory.
The president’s place is different from that of a lawyer or a candidate. It requires incomparable responsibility and devotion. The five years that a president is in office could raise a country or drag it down. It is not the time for the president to be obsessed with private rights. It is time for him to be reborn with a grand hope and vision as the president of all the people. Does Mr. Roh want to go down in history as the lawyer-turned-president who incited a “lawsuit republic?”
The media and individual journalists should also reflect on their deeds. Had there been any fault, they should not hesitate to set it right. They should not step down from the legal battle out of fear. They should not compromise or fraternize with those in authority to make up for past mistakes.
The media must always be alert if only to prevent any racier novels than that of the allegations of the Hyundai Group’s bribery of Mr. Kwon from happening in reality.
* The writer is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Sioux Lee