Hands off the press

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Hands off the press

The Blue House is under fire for attempting interfere or even censor television news coverage of the Sewol ferry sinking that killed hundreds of people in 2014.

Kim Si-gon, former newsroom chief of the state-controlled Korean Broadcasting System (KBS), who was dismissed in May 2014 following the tragedy a month earlier, claimed he received several calls from the Blue House asking KBS not to be critical of the Coast Guard.

More than 300 out of 476 passengers on the ship heading to Jeju Island died. The survivors were mostly rescued by fishing boats instead of the Coast Guard.

Taped conversations between Kim and Lee Jung-hyun, then senior presidential spokesman, supported the KBS news chief’s claim.

Lee ordered Kim to edit the news or change its slant. Kim at one point raised his voice, telling Lee, “Let’s be honest. Who has helped you as much as we have?”

The role of public relations is important in government for communicating with the public on policies. The presidential public relations officer has a duty to explain to the media the background and reasons for each policy.

But this should be done transparently through policy briefings. Its media relations should be aimed at reasonable and transparent information sharing, not to control or tame the press.

A spokesman pleading with a newsmaker for reports that are positive, or berating him for reports that are unfavorably, occurred under the military regimes of the past. There is no place for such pressure from on high in today’s democratic world.

Korea’s rank has been slipping on the annual World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Sans Frontiers, or Reporters Without Borders. This year it ranked 70 among 180 countries, down 10 notches from last year and its lowest score since the rankings began in 2002.

“Relations have been very tense between the media and the authorities under President Park Geun-hye,” the group said.

“The government has displayed a growing inability to tolerate criticism and its meddling in the already polarized media threatens their independence,” it added. Public broadcasting must not be used as propaganda tool for the government.

A public broadcaster has a duty to keep watch and criticize the governing power. The legislature must push for a bill to take the heavy hand of the government off public broadcasters for good.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 2, Page 26
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