[FOUNTAIN]Concerns arise over threats to press freedom

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[FOUNTAIN]Concerns arise over threats to press freedom

On Oct. 23, 1974, the Korean Central Intelligence Agency picked up Song Kun-ho, the editor of the Dong-A Ilbo, along with the paper’s local news editor, and held them in the agency’s basement, the so-called torture room, without warrants. The newspaper had reported that day that Seoul National University students staged a protest rally against the Park Chung Hee military dictatorship.
Earlier in the year the Park regime had announced an emergency decree transcending any existing law, which banned all types of activities that “negate, oppose, distort or slander” the constitution. It also banned any kind of reporting on these activities. It empowered the government to arrest, detain, seize and search any violator without court warrants. The decree mandated that the martial court impose the maximum 15-year prison term on any violator.
Two years earlier, the Park government had revised the constitution. It empowered the president to appoint a third of the lawmakers and deprived the public of the right to directly elect the president. The revised constitution actually enabled Mr. Park to be a lifetime president. The regime called it Yusin, or revitalizing reform.
Even before the emergency decree, intelligence agents were posted in newsrooms to monitor and control reporting. Reporters were taken to the agency’s basement and were threatened occasionally. Mr. Song’s case triggered a long-lasting struggle to win press freedom under the Park regime (1961-1979). The fight by young journalists expanded from Dong-A to 31 newspapers, television stations and wire services.
The emergency decree rule lasted for five years and nine months, until Mr. Park was assassinated by his intelligence chief on Oct. 26, 1979. Under that decree, 760 people, including 84 journalists and writers, were detained on charges of expressing their opposition to the dictatorship.
There is no such naked violence against press freedom anymore. But recently, the records of phone conversations between reporters and government officials were checked on two occasions, by the National Intelligence Service and the Supreme Public Prosecutors Office, without obtaining court warrants. The Journalists Association of Korea issued a statement on Feb. 3 saying that illegal inquiries on reporters’ phone records is a severe infringement of press freedom, and press groups have urged the government to take measures to prevent any further infringement.
Though the phone record check is not a direct gag of the press, it may send the wrong signal to government officials: “You would rather not talk to reporters.” Limiting access to sources will do serious damage to press freedom.

by Lee Moo-young

The writer is national news editor of the JoongAng Daily.
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