[Viewpoint] The ghost of Heo Mun-do

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[Viewpoint] The ghost of Heo Mun-do

I feel sorry to start the new year with such a serious story when words of blessing may be more appropriate. However, the Constitutional Court ruled that arresting the blogger known as Minerva was unconstitutional, and the decision reminded me of the media massacre by the military government 30 years ago.

If the self-taught economic commentator had manipulated the financial market with false information amid the financial crisis in the name of the Roman Goddess of Wisdom 30 years ago, he would have been a victim of the massacre. It is widely known that Heo Mun-do, a former journalist who become a government minister and senior secretary to the president under President Chun Doo Hwan, led the media massacre, known as the Media Purgation Operation. But Park Dae-sung, a.k.a. Minerva, came out of the court alive.

Thirty years have passed between Heo Mun-do and Minerva. It means it took three decades to confirm a simple principle that any decent nation should respect - that government intervention should be limited, even if a citizen spreads false information. Unless you are out of your mind enough to hoist a North Korean flag in front of Seoul City Hall, the freedom of speech and press is a basic right that individuals and the state must respect.

Heo Mun-do himself was a journalist, but he made a media blacklist of 982 journalists critical of the government and dismissed 711 of them. Tongyang Broadcasting Corporation was integrated into KBS, and MBC went under state management. News agencies were integrated into the newly established Yonhap News Agency.

The nation’s media outlets were cleaned up and reorganized to suit the palate of the military authorities. In the year after Park Chung Hee’s assassination on Oct. 26, 1979, 270,000 news articles were censored and removed. Some brave newspapers decided not to replace the deleted articles and left the spots blank in the paper as a sign of protest.

The military government’s suppression of media, at a time when the per capita national income was 1.1 million won ($980), constantly tempted the powers that be even in the era of democracy. Kim Young-sam became the first nonmilitary president, but he secretly offered scholarships to students majoring in journalism, seeking favorable coverage. Kim Dae-jung was a fighter for democracy, but he sent the owner of a media company that was critical of his administration to jail for a questionable tax evasion charge. These incidents occurred toward the end of the 20th century.

The Roh Moo-hyun administration announced a media plan that effectively shut down press rooms at major government agencies. Accredited reporters did not have a designated office and had to write stories in the lobby. The president’s public relations secretary implausibly maintained that he would be the faithful retainer of relations between the government and the media. When the per capita national income was 16.9 million won and democracy was ripening, the ghost of Heo Mun-do returned.

The message of the Constitutional Court is that Minerva’s supposed crimes should be adjudicated online, in the marketplace of free expression. Korean bloggers and online debaters, after all, are known for their aggressive cyberattacks, as seen in the case of rapper Tablo. But politicians do not seem to have forgotten about Heo Mun-do and his specter still haunts. A few days ago, the winners of the license to operate new general programming channels were announced, and ruling and opposition party lawmakers engaged in both verbal and physical fights. The media reform bill that passed in July responded to the calls to correct the “Heo Mun-do Act” that separated newspapers and broadcasting services and the consequent vices of an oligopolist broadcasting industry.

The last 30 years were “three lost decades” for the nation’s media industry. While Samsung, Hyundai and LG emerged as internationally renowned corporations, the media and broadcasters remained local businesses. Local advertisements were the only income source, and media companies feared politicians. The politicians battled because they believe the new broadcasters may become politicians’ lapdogs. Do we really need physical fights and a constitutional lawsuit to reform the controlled media industry? Shouldn’t they instead help them become global media companies?

Does a public television broadcaster really exist in Korea when people pay attention to who becomes the presidents of KBS and MBC whenever the administration changes? I’ve never heard of the presidents of BBC of the United Kingdom and ABC and CBS of the United States getting replaced and their directions changed whenever administrations change.

AFP of France, Reuters and CNN of the United States are global media corporations that sell information and news to the international market. If they sell false news, their stock prices plummet. The subtle collusion between politics and media in Korea is shameful, and viewers must demand that politicians and the public media guarantee media independence and advancement into the global market.

*The writer is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University.


By Song Ho-keun

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