[VIEWPOINT]Press freedom crucial for society

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[VIEWPOINT]Press freedom crucial for society

If someone ever asked me what I envy the most about American society, I would say without hesitation that I envy their mature freedom of press. In the United States, freedom of press is so developed that it is now a natural part of everyday life. For example, before the presidential election we can recall how many media outlets predicted the failure of George Bush’s re-election and talked as if the whole country would be devastated if he was re-elected. President Bush is now about to start his second term energetically, but there are no signs of him trying to “train the press.” Even President Roh Moo-hyun went as far as to mention in his speech in Los Angeles a month ago that he wanted to get a point across because the White House is not taking action regarding extreme press reports.
However, I think that such a statement comes from a misunderstanding of the relationship between the U.S. press and the U.S. government. The U.S. government keeps the rules of free competition and non-interference in economic affairs and applies the same rule in the field of press freedom by allowing people to talk and read whatever they want. There are no civic groups that divide which newspapers are good and which are not. There are no politicians who, riding on the civic groups’ move, try to interfere with people’s right to read their choice of newspapers by limiting subscription rates or applying heavy taxes on media outlets.
The early immigrants to the United States from England saw Oliver Cromwell, who took power as a result of the civil revolution, slowly change into a dictator. Thanks to this experience, they learned early on that a dictatorship could be established even in the name of citizens. The best solution they came up with to prevent this was the separation of the three powers ― executive, legislative and judicial ― and the freedom of press.
The 1732 Zenger case is recorded as the first one in American history where freedom of press was established. When a New York paper printed stories that criticized the royal governor, the governor arrested its editor, Zenger, on charges of seditious libel. However, the judge and jury found Zenger not guilty and he was acquitted. Forty years later freedom of press officially became the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution along with freedom of religion and so became a foundation for protecting democracy.
There was a time when the United States shattered a company by applying heavy taxes, but it was the mafia that was doing more harm than good to the people. There are no precedents in free democracies where the government limits sales of or applies heavy taxes to newspapers people choose to read under the false logic that such newspaper companies dominate the media market. If governments pulled out such a restricting knife, internationally famous news media like The New York Times, CNN, Le Monde and the Asahi Shimbun probably would not exist today.
In this age of globalization, the Korean media also look to a few international newspapers to observe their positions on big domestic and international cases. It would be good if our media could get up to such a global standard too. Yet it is a pity that our government is not only failing to aid them, but is even trying to stop the development of the media.
The major daily newspapers were also once frowned upon because of their extreme sales competition, but the competition has calmed down a little now. That is why normal citizens like me who find joy in reading the morning newspaper feel deprived at the recent move to impose restrictions on the press. Furthermore, it is not easy to get rid of the suspicion that somewhere beneath the surface there are political reasons.
Despite the long boycott movement of civic groups against certain newspapers, the combined subscription rate of the three mainstream newspapers is over 60 percent of the overall newspaper market. This shows us how much the people love these three papers.
Newspapers, the Internet, and the news on TV are good friends that become the eyes and ears of the people, inform people about culture and also help kill spare time regardless of the limits of time, space and age. Working class restaurants, shops and offices generally offer the three mainstream dailies to guests. Why is there something wrong with that? The working class economy is so bad now anyway. If the government takes away the fun of reading a paper on top of that, we cannot help but go back to the basic question of whether or not the Republic of Korea is a democratic country with freedom of press.

*The writer is a professor of American history at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Hyung-in
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