History reveals media truths

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History reveals media truths

History is merciless. It always sheds light on the truth and sets records straight. The government-endorsed Truth and Reconciliation Commission has uncovered general-turned-president Chun Doo Hwan’s scheme to merge and consolidate media organizations to enforce power gained from a coup d’etat.

The commission, based on past records, concluded that Chun’s military government unlawfully commandeered media groups on the pretext of consolidating and realigning the media industry.

For a government agency to put the record straight provides a valuable lesson and, hopefully, will prevent such a mishap from recurring. The JoongAng Ilbo lost its broadcasting arm, the Tongyang Broadcasting Corporation, from the forced merger and shutdown.

The commission’s study reaffirmed that the media realignment was instrumental in empowering the fragile military revolt. It concluded that the military government in 1980 decided to commandeer and restrain media groups that could pose a threat to its power. The merger and shutdown chose targets according to pro-government tendencies and acquaintances with certain politicians.

The biggest problem was that the shutdown was forced. The body called the Korean Central Intelligence Agency at the time called in the presidents of targeted media organizations and demanded that they sign a letter surrendering their companies. Armed soldiers were present.

They were “threatened with tax audits and corporate investigation” if they refused to sign. The JoongAng Ilbo still remembers the menacing mood at the time. Few could have disobeyed a militant government that seized power at gunpoint.

The study also confirmed that the owners had to hand over their companies as well as their personal investments and walk away with paltry payments. They were never compensated for invisible assets like business and broadcasting rights. No one would dare to talk of market principles in a country where the government was confiscating personal assets by force. It has become evident that the military government lied when it said media companies were fully compensated for the forced transactions.

The military government hitherto justified the merger as enhancing media freedom. But it had little knowledge of media, let alone the industry’s future. The government was only concerned with creating a propaganda mouthpiece to serve its power.

If not for its tyranny, we could have seen the age of multi-broadcasting much sooner. Companies cannot willingly invest if their assets are under threat by the government. The military government censored and restrained media investment to keep the media in check. Years that could have been spent advancing our media industry have been lost.

Every government has attempted to rein in the press. But attempts to terrorize and dominate the media can backfire for a governing power. The committee advised the state to make amends and take steps to compensate for losses from the forced media closures.

We welcome the committee’s advice. We understand 30 years have passed, but it is the state’s duty to take responsibility for past mistakes as well as present ones. We hope politicians and social experts will see the wisdom of efforts to set history straight.
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