[Viewpoint]Does Roh want a real debate?

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[Viewpoint]Does Roh want a real debate?

What would happen if the national team of a country were given the privilege of choosing the players on a rival’s side at the World Cup soccer competition? What if the national team of another country were given the privilege of choosing the umpire? What if the team playing against the national team of the country to which the president of FIFA belonged were limited to only 6 players? World Cup fever would fade away in an instant and FIFA might have to close shop and duck from a the volley of criticism. Competition under such conditions would not be fair and it would eliminate interest in the game.
In a similar way, an unfair debate is not a genuine debate. It is instead manipulation of public opinion disguised as a debate. Finding the tide of public opinion running against him, President Roh Moo-hyun has suggested an open debate on the subject of the government’s plan “to merge and abolish some of the press rooms in government offices.”
As soon as he entered the political arena as a lawmaker in the early 1980s, Roh Moo-hyun gained fame during a parliamentary hearing on the wrongdoings of the Chun Doo Hwan regime. And he won, with his oratorical power, the support of party cadres at the Democratic Party’s primary for the presidential election in 2002. Soon after he was inaugurated as the president in February 2003, he ordered civil servants to encourage a culture of debate on various issues as part of their duty in public office. Perhaps it is because he is confident of winning in any debate that he has made many proposals for open debate on the promises of his presidency over the past 52 months.
In the past year alone, Roh proposed “an open debate” with those who opposed his appointment of Jeon Hyo-sook as the chief justice of the Constitutional Court; those who opposed his proposed constitutional revision; and those who are against the government’s new media plan.
Roh’s proposed open debates have never been carried out, but judging from the fact that the spokesman of the Blue House talked recently of a “live television relay of the debate,” perhaps this time they are serious about actually having a debate on the media policy.
However, I am concerned about one thing regarding the proposal for an open debate. This is out of my personal experience. Roh was scheduled to appear on a late night debate on KBS in early September of 2003, the year he was inaugurated as president. The broadcaster negotiated with the Blue House for a long time to plan that first television debate with an incumbent president.
The participants in the presidential debate selected by the public broadcaster were Kim Ki-sik, secretary general of the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy; Oh Yeon-ho, chief executive officer of Ohmynews; a Sogang University professor; and myself. The participants held three preparatory meetings and decided that, “The debate should be a real debate between the president and the participants ― not a press conference-style question-and-answer session in which the participants ask questions only and the president gives answers to them.”
A debate plan with critical questions, which were rigorous enough to make the Blue House uncomfortable, was prepared.
Despite opposition from the participants, who insisted that there was no reason to give the Blue House the debate draft, KBS submitted the draft to the Blue House anyway, reasoning that it was necessary “to treat the president with respect.” However, the Blue House cancelled the debate two or three days before the scheduled date.
Earlier this year, Roh accepted an invitation from the Kwanhun Club, Korea’s oldest organization of journalists, to participate in its debate forum in February. The office of the senior presidential secretary for public relations at the Blue House suggested to the Kwanhun Club to use more than half of the debate time to deal with the issue of a constitutional amendment on the term of office for president. Understandably, the debate participants said, “We cannot allow anyone to use the debate as a platform for publicity on the constitutional amendment.” They also said, “We will touch on the amendment of the Constitution as one of many pending issues.” But again, this debate was also dropped by the Blue House only a few days before it was to occur.
I sincerely hope that the Blue House decision was not motivated out of dislike for the participants or because they feared that the debaters would pose unwelcome questions for the president. I also hope it was not because they worried that the debate would not be a promotional event for the administration.
Judging from the circumstances at the time of the decision and the explanations of the debate organizer, KBS, on its communications with the Blue House, I cannot help suspecting that precisely the above points were the reasons why the debate was halted.
In the current case, there is no reason to hold an open debate on the government’s new media plan. Most media outlets oppose the plan; the majority of presidential candidates are against it, and the majority of the people are against it. Presidential aspirants are pledging that they will return things to normal when a change of government is accomplished. The merger and abolition of press rooms will result in nothing but a waste of money.
Even the few media companies under the influence of the government and a few pro-Roh presidential hopefuls have not come out in support of the plan. Instead they are simply keeping silent on the issue. When reporters asked the spokesperson of former Prime Minister Lee Hae-chan for an opinion on the issue, he said, “Former Prime Minister Lee did not say anything about this issue,” and added, “Do not write ‘No comment’ as his reaction, either.”
If a government plan does not reflect the will of the people or the preferences of our society, there is only one option left for the government and the president: withdraw the proposal quickly and quietly before any further damage is done.
If the president wants to insist on an open debate despite the opposition from all sides, he has to do it fairly and squarely. If the president is so confident, he should participate in it without pulling rank.
Only then will the people be able to make the right judgment based on real debate.
There is one precondition: The president must promise that he will carry out a public opinion survey as soon as the debate is over, and accept the will of the people reflected in the opinion poll.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Du-woo
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