A president should choose words carefullyWith the dawning of the year 2007, South Koreans were awakened by two clamorous noises from the Blue House. The most explosive noise was, of course, the proposal to amend the constitution to allow a two-term presidency. The other was the president’s severe criticism of the press.
President Roh Moo-hyun criticized the press as a place “where poor quality goods are traded” and charged that journalists “cook press releases” and “collude with each other” on the direction of news stories.
Meeting with 250 high-ranking civil servants at the Integrated Government Office in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi province on Jan. 4, President Roh asked them “not to succumb to the press,” and encouraged them “to lodge complaints against poor quality goods without exception.”
At a cabinet meeting held on Jan. 16, President Roh ordered the Government Information Service and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to study the process of news gathering and reporting in other countries to see whether the same process is followed there.
There was another incident during the morning session of the economic policy meeting, presided over by the president on Jan. 4 in Gwacheon. Lee Yong-deuk, head of the Federation of Korean Labor Unions, who was invited there to speak on pending labor issues, advised the president not to say too many words because the members of labor unions and ordinary people feel uneasy when they read the president’s remarks as reported in the mainstream newspapers. He then spoke about pending labor issues.
It seemed as if the president was upset about Mr. Lee’s advice not to talk too much.
President Roh retorted by saying, “Do you intend to publicly insult [the president]?”
Then, the president solemnly told him, “There are words that can be made in public and those that should be avoided. You should use discretion in your speech.”
The president then avoided making any comment on the pending labor issues, using the excuse, “Since you started by saying I talked too much, the latter part of your remarks [on pending labor issues] did not come to my ears.”
In Korean, the word eonron, meaning speech and discussion in a literal sense, is used in three different ways.
The most common use, when translated to English, is in reference to the press. In this case, the word refers to the activities of gathering, publishing or broadcasting of news; news organizations like newspapers and periodicals and radio and television news broadcasters, and the employees in such organizations.
But the Korean dictionary defines the word differently. It says eonron means expressing one’s thoughts in words or in writing, or the words and writing themselves.
In legal terms, eonron means mainly verbal, visual and symbolic expressions. In the Korean constitution, it is not freedom of speech, but the freedom of speech and publication ― eonrongwa chulpanui jayu.
When President Roh used the word eonron to criticize the press, it was clearly in the sense most commonly used in English, referring to the press.
The word mal, in Mr. Lee’s advice to the president, was used in the sense of eonron in the Korean dictionary ― a verbal expression.
When President Roh told Mr. Lee, “You should use discretion in your speech,” however, the word mal was used in the legal sense, because the president expressed the feeling that his honor was damaged by Mr. Lee’s words.
In Korean, eonron (the press), chulpan (publication) and mal (speech), have to do with the freedom of speech. But the most important is mal or speech ― not eonron or the press ― because speech precedes journalism.
Clause 1, Article 21 of the constitution stipulates that “All citizens shall enjoy freedom of speech and publication and freedom of assembly and association.” And Clause 4 says, “Neither speech nor publication shall violate the honor or rights of other persons nor undermine public morals or social ethics. Should speech or publications violate the honor or rights of other persons, claims may be made for the damage resulting from them.”
The journalists who cover the Ministry of Health and Welfare have already expressed their dismay over the president’s remarks about their news coverage and demanded an apology from the president. They must have felt their honor was damaged by the president’s words. If journalists, editors and publishers feel that their honor was damaged by his criticism that the press is a place “where poor quality goods are traded,” they can take the case to court.
It is the president’s right to criticize the press but he should be fully aware that his words can be an object of legal scrutiny.
*The writer, a former editorial page editor of the JoongAng Daily, is a professor of media studies at Myongji University.
by Park Sung-soo