[Viewpoint]Media ownership balance

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[Viewpoint]Media ownership balance

Freedom of speech is the standard of liberal democracy. Only on that basis can the principal foundation of democracy, a diversity of freely expressed opinions, be achieved. A plurality of ideas prevents monopoly and corruption of power and helps to resolve social conflicts peacefully. However, while encouraging diverse ideas to emerge, freedom of speech may also engender the opposite outcome. That is the case when giant media corporations, taking advantage of protections for free speech, monopolize markets and limit the number of opinions instead of encouraging pluralism.
Thus a democratic state upholds the right to intervene and regulate the media market. In the aftermath of democratization, Korean society witnessed a fierce debate over regulation of the media intended to protect the diversity of ideas. Laws on newspaper ownership and regulations related to public ownership of broadcast corporations were designed to prevent huge conglomerates from dominating the media industry. Limitations on family ownership of media networks, regulations against creating monopolies in the newspaper market, bans on one company owning several daily newspapers and limits on integrated management of a newspaper and a broadcast network were all designed to assure the openness a democracy needs to thrive.
However, regulation of the media is also accompanied by side effects, such as suppressing industrial competencies by blocking market competition, in addition to the possibility of using regulatory devices to suppress journalism. The media industry in Korea is suffering huge side effects due to heavy regulation. The broadcast networks and daily newspapers, which have long been privileged due to market protectionism, now face tough challenges from newly emerging rivals, including cable networks, Internet media and free newspapers. Daily newspapers are feeling these effects already.
The newspaper industry has not improved the management systems that have been in place since the time of the military dictatorships, when the media was under the thumb of government. Thus newspapers have been faced with problems in streamlining their business practices over the past decade to meet new forms of competition in a liberalized market for which they were unprepared.
When companies lose their edge, they deserve to be ousted. However, when the weaklings are removed from the market without improving market structure, the resulting tendency toward monopoly will only worsen. On the one hand, the market should determine which unprofitable media corporations are to be displaced; on the other hand, an industrial environment within which competitive companies can rebound should be prepared. Above all, inefficient regulations that impair the strength of media companies must be reformed and rethought. One such regulation is the current media law that prohibits one company from controlling both a newspaper and a broadcasting company.
The ban on integrated ownership of print and broadcast media was created during a time when there were no alternative media that could reflect the wide range of public opinion. The handful of big daily newspapers and big broadcast networks were the two pillars of the media, exerting tremendous influence in the days before the Internet. The regulation made sense because it was supposed to prevent exploitation by a powerful owner.
But times have changed. In terms of generating public opinion, newspapers and broadcast networks have lost much of their dominance. The groups that exert a heavy influence on the media have also changed; they are neither political powers nor media moguls. Those who hold journalism in the balance today are the large companies that advertise in the mass media. Due to the continuing difficulties of media companies to manage the business, the independence of journalism has been compromised, likewise afflicting the diversity of ideas.
Last December, both the ruling and opposition parties submitted to the National Assembly a revised newspaper law that partially allows the integrated ownership of newspapers and broadcast networks. At that time, the proposal of the Uri Party allowed a broadcast network to control up to 30 percent of the shares or assets of a daily newspaper. The Grand National Party proposal conceded that a maximum of 20 percent of the shares in a broadcast network could be held by a newspaper company that commands less than 20 percent of the market.
The two proposals met opposition from the media, labor unions and civic organizations on the grounds that the revised rules would tend to homogenize opinions and lower the diversity of public opinion.
But integrated management of newspaper and broadcasting networks enhances the management efficiency of media corporations and extends their potential for profit, thus helping to restore the independence of journalism and contribute to the plurality of opinions. But integrated management could also have the opposite effect. Hence, other countries that allow the integration of newspapers and television enact conditions such as restricting the market share of a single company or closely scrutinizing mergers and acquisitions.
Pluralism of ideas must be maintained in a liberal society; it is a fundamental principle. Yet the measures for ensuring such plurality can also be flexible in practice, as political, industrial and social circumstances change and evolve. We must search for an innovative policy alternative to enhance the diversity of opinions by increasing the competitiveness of the media industry.

*The writer is a professor of media and communications at Soon Chun Hyang University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Jang Ho-sun

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