[Viewpoint]A question of freedom

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[Viewpoint]A question of freedom

The government has shut down press rooms in government offices as President Roh Moo-hyun said he would do earlier. Not only central government offices but also the Financial Supervisory Service and police stations have gotten rid of press rooms and regulated the access journalists have to the offices.
Journalists are demanding that the government immediately end its control of reporters and oppose the transfer and consolidation of press rooms. Lee Myung-bak, the Grand National Party’s presidential candidate condemned the practice of shutting down press rooms saying to do so goes against an open society. Grand Nationals inspected the press rooms, which were to be streamlined.
The debate on the issue is enough to make one feel dizzy. People in the media protest, calling the act press suppression worse than during the Fifth Republic. But the government calls its media policy an advanced measure to support media coverage. As if it were coercing children to swallow medicine, it says the policy may taste bitter but is good for the health. Whether conservative or progressive, print or television, online or offline, entire media outlets oppose the government’s measure.
Some try to make it look like journalists do not want to lose their privileges. But journalists are worried about more than just losing their privileges. Media outlets realize the people’s right to know, so the freedom of media outlets is part of the freedom of speech, according to a majority of experts on the Constitution. Media outlets collect data for news coverage, and to collect data, journalists need to approach sources.
Journalists’ right to approach sources is in line with their freedom of speech. If one understands this, one will understand that press rooms in government offices are not there to make it easier for journalists to cover the news. They are there simply to protect the people’s basic right to know. This is the government’s basic duty as stipulated in the Constitution.
This issue seems complicated but in fact, it is quite simple. At its core, it is about how a democratic country makes policies. The issue of shutting down press rooms is only the surface of the matter.
As the government makes up its fancy package, it uses the word “advanced” and posts notices that begin with “There are no press rooms in government offices of advanced countries.” It has been doing so for months. The survey about whether or not advanced countries have press rooms in government buildings makes the debate a shallow one. In countries like the United States and Japan that have an influence on Korea’s politics, there are press rooms in government buildings. But the Korean government counted the number of countries that do not have press rooms in government buildings and used the figure to back its decision.
A survey of this kind is risky because it counts whether press rooms exist or not in certain countries but does not study the circumstances that led countries to make their decisions about press rooms. A study of the existence of press rooms in other countries is only meaningful when it is studied together with how much a certain country reveals to the people.
The different stances between the government and the media on shutting down press rooms are based on different opinions about how major government policies must be decided in a democratic country. The core question is whether the people should know about government policies before they are finalized and decided.
The government thinks that if information about government policies that are not finalized is circulated among the people, such information will only cause chaos in society. The media argues that even though policies are not yet decided, the people have a right to know about them so they can voice their opinions.
From the government’s perspective, all policies must remain confidential until they are confirmed. Journalists and civil servants must not contact one another to prevent unconfirmed policies from being publicized through media outlets. Thus, it reasons that press rooms in government offices must be shut down.
But from the media’s perspective, the people must know what the government is working on, and the government has a duty to give people the opportunity to be informed. The media lets the people know what the government is working on and also provides a forum for public opinion, which is then reflected in policies. Thus, journalists need to meet civil servants frequently and systems or institutions to encourage such contact must be prepared. Press rooms are part of such a system.
The government’s perspective is a stance taken in underdeveloped countries where the state rules with a strong arm, and the media perspective is a stance taken in advanced countries where the people participate in state affairs. In which country do you want to live?

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

by Moon Jae-wan
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