[Outlook]No right to reply

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[Outlook]No right to reply

After President Lee Myung-bak delivered an address on KBS 1 Radio on Nov. 3, the opposition party demanded the right to reply. Some producers from other broadcasting companies also called for the people in charge of airing the speech to be reprimanded, denouncing the program as propaganda.

As I heard this news from abroad, I wondered if the presidential election campaign was still going on in Korea, even though eight months have passed since the new administration took office.

I also thought that if the opponents to the speech are to be believed, then the United States, a leading international example in terms of freedom of speech, must also be guilty of broadcasting propaganda, as Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave speeches on radio, and Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush both made speeches via network broadcasters.

Roosevelt’s fireside chats were aired 30 times between March 1933 and June 1944. The speeches are viewed as having contributed to uniting the people in overcoming the Great Depression, which was gripping the world at the time.

Why, then, is the right to reply now becoming an issue in Korea? The uproar is the result of several mistaken assumptions about what the right means. Firstly, the right to reply has been misunderstood as it regards freedom of speech. The right applies in some European countries, but in the United States, the country that Korea views as its model, the rule has long been abolished. In America, it has become customary for media outlets to explicitly endorse or oppose the candidate of a certain political party.

The right to reply is a rule allowing a candidate to present his opposing opinions if he feels an article, editorial or TV program has unfairly criticized his policies. The media in France and Germany have the same definition of the concept.

Secondly, a person can only demand the opportunity of reply when his own rights, as they are protected by the law, have been infringed upon, such as by slander or defamation, or by distortion of the truth. Making new arguments or throwing out extraneous comments not explicitly related to the topic at hand is prohibited. But in 2000, as the United States Court of Appeals ruled that the right puts limitations on freedom of speech, the Federal Communications Commission abolished it.

In the United States, the right was first stipulated in the press act in 1927. In 1934, as Congress enacted the Communication Act, the right to reply was accepted as it was. In 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court in Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo overturned a Florida state law which stipulated the right, on the grounds that it violated the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

In 1949, the FCC also introduced the Fairness Doctrine, a rather abstract principle aimed at prohibiting the broadcasting of biased programs. But the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the doctrine infringed on the right of broadcasters to decide which programs they run, and the FCC got rid of the rule.

The right to reply was first regarded as a step to go through before taking a case to court, at great loss of money and time, when an individual’s rights were infringed upon by TV programs or newspaper articles. But the U.S. later abolished it, probably because of the increased strength of the argument that the regulation impedes the right of the media to edit their own programs or articles.

Lee’s radio speech was a part of a wide range of things the president does in governing the country. His words were intended to encourage the people to work harder in the economic crisis. As the address was not intended to criticize a certain political party or a specific individual, it can’t even be the object of a right of reply controversy.

The staff at KBS, a state broadcaster which operates thanks to licensing fees paid by the people, offered an opportunity for the president and the people to communicate in difficult times that could rightfully be described as an emergency.

The staff showed cordiality, but the company is being decried as a “handmaid to the powerful” or a “propaganda broadcaster.” This response is extremely unfair.

*The writer is a visiting professor of political science at Keio University in Japan. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Kyung-su
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