Korea faces press freedom barriersWe meet today in the exciting and vibrant splendor of Seoul, only a short distance away from the last remaining Cold War frontier, the DMZ. It is a border that not only divides a great nation and a proud people, but starkly symbolizes two very different concepts of humanity. Put bluntly, it is a frontier that stands between freedom here and bondage in the North.
Your South Korea of today is based on the respect for human rights, for democracy and for economic freedoms. The world has watched with great admiration and some obvious envy the truly extraordinary progress and development that your republic has enjoyed over the past two decades thanks largely to these freedoms.
As we have seen all too frequently across modern history, the results of this shackling of a people ― are poverty, stagnation, misery and ruin. That sadly is the North Korea of today.
As many in this room will attest, the road toward ― and evolution of ― freedom of expression and the free-flow of information was a long and arduous one here in South Korea. Comparatively speaking, the closing stages of that long journey here in South Korea have only really come to bear in recent times ― and yet it is still not flawless. We are aware that significant tensions exist between major newspapers and the state, with claims made regularly that there are plans to cut down their power by limiting their freedom.
In particular, recent legislative moves in the area of the media do strike us as being somewhat incompatible with internationally-recognized standards governing the freedom to publish.
Bills passed by the National Assembly which aim, among other things, to set limits on the market share of newspapers are not ― in our view ― a sensible way of dealing with what some may consider is excessive influence. Restricting a readers’ right to subscribe to the newspapers of their choice is unusual, to say the least, and is not something that is prevalent anywhere else in the democratic world.
There are problems, as the Korean government is aware, with other proposed law revisions ― that appear to us to constitute an unwarranted interference in the freedom and autonomy of publishers and their editors ― and the World Association of Newspapers remains willing ― as we have always been ― to discuss these issues with your representatives at any time.
To our Korean colleagues, I trust that you will take these candid remarks constructively, as indeed they are intended. As an organization which exists in the first instance to defend and promote freedom of the press worldwide, we frankly never shy away from commenting on restrictions to press freedom. As we see it at WAN it’s our responsibility ― and believe me, there are all too many heads of state that need to be reminded of it.
Despite what you heard this morning, happily, it is not the case with your president ― very far from it. He had a long, tough and distinguished career as a defender of human rights and has paid for his commitment to these rights.
Through his career ― first as a lawyer and then as a politician ― he has defended the rights of students, led human rights causes, and has been a leading activist in the pro-democracy movement, particularly in the 1980s. And these aren’t just platitudes ― he went to jail for his strongly-held beliefs.
As such, his long and distinguished fight for human rights persuades me that our respective positions on the right to freedom of the press cannot differ very much, and I am sure that his wise future actions in this field will confirm that.
* Incoming President World Association of Newspapers
by Gavin O’Reilly
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