[Viewpoint]Presidents and the press

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[Viewpoint]Presidents and the press

The next president of the Republic of Korea will be elected on Wednesday. Immediately after that, the president-elect will form and lead a transition committee. The committee will take over various pending issues and countless national secrets from the current administration.
Based on this information and his campaign promises, the president-elect will adjust policy planning for the next five years from Feb. 25, 2008, and reshuffle the government. He will also decide whom to choose for prime minister and other cabinet posts for his administration.
The president-elect will need to immediately start deliberating the key pending issues that will determine the destiny of the nation. He will inevitably agonize over the national debt, household debt and the gap between rich and poor, which are all at historical highs.
The financial difficulties facing domestic banks and corporations due to strains in the international financial market will surely pressure the president-elect.
Other major issues include the college admission system, which has been causing social discord, and rapidly rising youth unemployment.
Moreover, the trouble associated with North Korea’s nuclear program is another matter the president-elect needs to pay special attention to. Pyongyang must faithfully report all nuclear programs by the end of the year in accordance with the six-party talks agreement from Feb. 13, but the North is reportedly refusing to follow the agreement.
The president-elect also cannot neglect the reorganization of the press rooms, which has caused a serious rift between the Roh Administration and reporters. The press room issue is a matter directly related to the freedom of speech and citizens’ right to know.
The correspondents accredited to the Ministry of National Defense have been staging a candlelight sit-in since the night of Dec. 15. The reporters accredited to the National Police Agency began protesting even earlier, but they were driven out of their press room as well.
The reporters accredited to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Ministry of Unification, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Finance and Economy have already been kicked out of their press rooms and are writing and sending articles in coffee shops and from Internet cafes.
Under the military regimes of the past, reporters accredited to the Ministry of National Defense were called “three-room reporters” because they had access to only three rooms in the ministry ― the press room, the public relations office and the restroom.
Interviews with the defense ministry and Joint Chiefs of Staff insiders were strictly restricted.
Naturally, the citizens’ right to know about national defense was seriously infringed upon.
Major presidential candidates unanimously criticize the press room reorganization carried out by the Roh Administration, which claims to be improving reporters’ government coverage.
Grand National Party candidate Lee Myung-bak firmly said that closing press rooms is an irrational measure and if he is elected, he would altogether reconsider the reorganization. United New Democratic Party’s Chung Dong-young promised that he would expand reporters’ access. Independent candidate Lee Hoi-chang said he would create a smooth environment for reporters in the near future.
The press rooms that have been shut down by President Roh will not be restored even after the presidential election. Roh is likely to turn down the president-elect if he suggests restoring press rooms while Roh is still in office.
The president-elect should pay attention to the protests of reporters driven out to the streets by the Roh Administration.
To reporters, the press room is not a space but a tool.
A reporter accredited to the Ministry of Unification called for restoration of the press room, saying, “If we go to the integrated briefing room as the government demands, we will have drastically reduced contact with government officials and have to depend on press releases drafted to suit the government’s taste.”
The president-elect should resolve the issue before he is tempted to control information and become a target of media criticism.
I hope that the presidential candidates keep in mind a lesson from history. The more you attempt to control information, the more distant public sentiment becomes.

*The writer is a deputy political news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lee Chul-hee
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