[OUTLOOK]A need for a good media policyThe launch of the Hankyoreh Sin-mun was a memorable event in the history of the Korean press. The central figures of the newspaper were the journalists who were driven out from other media outlets by the military dictatorship. Therefore, it was like a ray of hope to the Korean press that was tainted by alleged pro-Japanese activities and support for the military-backed administrations. The paper raised the funds needed for its inauguration by selling shares to the public, an unprecedented example in the history of the world press. Thus, the paper became the hope and catalyst for Korea’s democratization movement.
Since its inauguration, the Hankyoreh has suffered from persistent management difficulties due to insufficient funds. Since 1990, especially, when newspapers began to suffer from a sharp decline in readership due to the rapid expansion of Internet use, the shock was even more damaging to liberal papers like the Hankyoreh that had a low market share and weak financial structure. Since last year, the paper has had to reduce its number of employees drastically. This year, the paper declared that it would be born again and launched a fund-raising campaign.
A few days ago, there was a report that President Roh Moo-hyun was to donate a month’s salary to the paper’s development fund. He participated in the paper’s fund-raising campaign when it was inaugurated and also participated in an increase in capital twice after its inauguration. Therefore, his decision to donate a month’s salary can be interpreted as an expression of his pure intention to again help the paper that he has been supporting in earnest. But it can also be interpreted as a signal to supporters, public officials and businessmen to follow suit.
It is natural that President Roh, who is liberal and reform-minded, prefers to read a paper like the Hankyoreh. In a situation where the competition for survival among newspapers is fierce, however, it is not desirable for the president to give an impression, regardless of his intention, that he supports a certain paper. Maintaining neutrality and fairness is as important for the president as it is for newspapers. Especially at a time when the mistrust between the administration and the conservative papers is as deep as it is now, and when the government tries to regulate or render support to certain papers by enacting a new newspaper bill, the president should refrain from making such gestures.
Ever since Mr. Roh assumed power, there have been a lot of problems in his approach to the newspapers. When the president was a lawmaker he did not get along well with conservative papers. He filed a lawsuit against the Chosun Ilbo in a libel case. After he was inaugurated as president, Mr. Roh still showed sensitive reactions to the critical reports or commentaries of conservative papers. An even bigger problem was that the president responded only on the emotional and personal levels, not on a media policy level. When he was the president-elect, Mr. Roh made a surprise visit to the Hankyoreh Sinmun and appointed Jung Yun-joo, then editorial writer of the Hankyoreh, as the president of the Korea Broadcasting System. He demonstrated boastfully his own way of making use of a newspaper.
In contrast to his gestures to the Hankyoreh, other newspaper-related measures taken in the early days of his presidency, such as regular briefings by government ministries and ending subscriptions to the early street editions of the morning papers, which seemed to herald a structural reform of the newspaper business, were lost in the suffle.
The Roh administration has repeatedly announced bold reform policies in areas other than the newspaper business. However, there is no reform policy aimed at normalizing the newspaper industry, which has grown in an abnormal way for decades. A newspaper bill passed the National Assembly early this year, but it was swept up in a controversy, accused of giving support to liberal papers while regulating conservative papers, and was sent to the Constitutional Court for a review of its constitutionality.
Over 10 years the newspaper market was left to fall into disorder, and anarchic competition among newspapers ensued, while the government sat as a spectator. And the papers started to lose the credibility of their readers as well as advertisers. Now, the situation has come to the stage where almost all newspapers find it difficult to survive without government support.
Especially liberal papers like Hankyoreh, which do not have financial capability, are in a desperate situation. If extraordinary measures are not taken, only conservative papers with financial backing will survive and the functions of newspapers as forums for public opinion will be greatly reduced. The crisis of the newspaper business could develop into a crisis of the whole nation, because the main driving force of modern Korea ― democratization and an information-based society ― will be seriously damaged.
If President Roh wants to save the Hankyoreh from falling, it is better to provide a media policy on which healthy and sound papers like Hankyoreh can grow than to donate a month’s salary to the paper’s development fund. What the Hankyoreh really wants from the president might be just this.
* The writer is a professor of mass communications at Soonchunhyang University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Chang Ho-sun