[INSIGHT]Go easy on criticism of presidentIt is often said that the function of the media is to criticize or to check political power. In our society, to put it more precisely, its role is to check the president’s power. The media’s public standing used to depend on how strongly it criticized presidential power. Under the military dictatorships, the media focused its concerns on how to mobilize metaphoric expressions to criticize the president’s power. And during the presidencies of the two Kims, the standing of the media, particularly newspapers, was determined by their ability to confront the president’s power and to ridicule and criticize Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung.
How is President Roh Moo-hyun’s standing? His popularity has hit a low point, and President Roh himself said that he couldn’t do his job and that he would seek a vote of confidence. If he could not win that vote, he said, he would resign. The president himself declared that he would not rely politically on the power of the National Intelligence Service and the prosecution, the foundation of his power. Moreover, Mr. Roh has no particular regional base. Just a few lawmakers support him. Although there is a minority party claiming to be the ruling party, Mr. Roh has no power to nominate candidates for legislative elections. The absolute power that the president once wielded has been reduced drastically, wittingly or unwittingly. Nonsensically, a local businessman, who had supported Mr. Roh’s presidential campaign, began to criticize the president’s personnel policy and gave insult to the president by saying that he was the man who could ensure the president a comfortable life after he leaves office.
Just as the status of the president’s power has changed, so should the way the media criticizes him be changed. It is time the media broke away from the conventional, ruthless way of criticizing presidential power. When the media criticizes presidential power relentlessly, the president is doomed to be a lame duck. When the media push him to become a peripheral force rather than a central one, and to be a minority rather than a majority power, a fearful situation could emerge. In this situation, inter-Korean cooperation, rather than the alliance between Korea and the United States, could be the keynote of our U.S. and North Korean policies, and the policies could lean toward being anti-American and pro-North Korean. In labor-management issues, those who argue for labor unions would be the minority. Distribution rather than growth would be the voice of the minority. Environment rather than development would be the argument of the minority. Opposing the troop deployment to Iraq rather than advocating the dispatch could be the stance of the minority. Education standardization rather than educational competitiveness could be the argument of the minority.
Is it all right for the media to drive the president into a corner this way? Strictly, President Roh’s basis of support belongs to the minority. But even if he has such a minority base, once he became the president, Mr. Roh, as the top leader of the nation, has to put priority on the majority of the people rather than the minority, and on national interest rather than ideology.
In our society, there are a number of powers that rank next to the presidential power. The number of powers is countless, including media power, labor power, farmers’ power, educational power, women’s power, environmental groups’ power and citizens’ power. In addition, there are Chosun-JoongAng-Donga Ilbos’ power, and Korean Confederation of Trade Unions’s power, Korea Teachers and Educational Workers Union’s power, women’s organizations’ power, civic groups’ power and the power of the opposition to building a nuclear waste disposal facility in Buan, North Jeolla province. That last power was so strong that even the presidential power could not influence the region of Buan County. The construction of a key national facility is in a quagmire due to opposition from a civic group. Just one day after the president ordered strictness in dealing with illegal demonstrations, Buan residents staged a violent demonstration, setting riot police vehicles on fire and attacking the ambulance carrying the injured policemen.
Just as almighty, absolute presidential power can never be tolerated, the unbridled power of the media can no longer be approved. The well-intended pressure groups such as civic groups, labor unions and women’s organizations ― whose power exceeds that of the president ― should refrain from using their power and resume their original attitude of worrying about the future of our country. Take North Korea, for example. Why did it become so destitute? North Korea suffers from a shortage of electricity no less urgent than that of food. We could overcome the energy crisis thanks to nuclear power generation. Thirty-nine percent of electricity actually comes from nuclear power, and 18 nuclear power generating facilities are in operation. As long as the nuclear plants are at work, more waste disposal facilities should be built. The Buan incident occurred at a time when the geographical research should be conducted, not when the facility was about to be constructed. The president’s power was of no avail here. The media power that uses electricity most is the broadcasters. Shouldn’t the state-run broadcaster, for which the Korea Electric Power Corporation collects its fee from viewers, have taken the lead in solving this problem?
Before a situation develops in which companies cannot use electricity, shouldn’t the labor unions volunteer to persuade the residents and come up with a monitoring and checking system that can lessen the danger of the nuclear disposal facility? But none of them were willing to take such an initiative, just advocate in unison that the facility shouldn’t be built.
Buddhism says that the public has a common job. Now the presidential power, the media power, labor power, environmental groups’ power and women’s power should be used cooperatively, for the national interest. Responsibility should be shared according to one’s power. Now we can no longer pass the buck to the president alone. The media, the labor unions and the civic groups should come forward to make the president gain support from the majority, rather than driving him into a corner as a minority.
* The writer is the executive editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kwon Young-bin