Jumping to conclusions
The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.
In November, the acting chief of state-run Pakistan Television (PTV) was sacked just two weeks after being appointed when a news caption read “Begging” instead of “Beijing” during the broadcast of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to China. The government did not accept the broadcaster’s apology for the typo that was splashed on screen for about 20 seconds, with the prime minister already having lost face for going to Beijing to seek economic aid due to fiscal crisis. The action is hardly surprising given rampant censorship in Pakistan, which ranked 139th out of 180 countries on the 2019 World Press Freedom list by Reporters Without Borders.
Although press freedom is ensured by the Constitution, similar cases have discreetly been taking place in South Korea.
While reporting on summit talks between President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington early this month, Yonhap News TV briefly had a picture of the North Korean flag under Moon’s photo. The broadcaster, run by the country’s only and state-funded news agency, claimed the blunder happened while trying to emphasize Moon’s mediating role between Washington and Pyongyang.
The gaffe came after the same broadcaster reported on drug abuse by scions of corporate families using a graphic image of a black figure head ultra-right bloggers used to mock former President Roh Moo-hyun. The news agency dismissed the executive-level head of news, an editor and the newsroom chief. Another cable channel MBN also suspended their newsroom chief for three months after the network aired captions referring to first lady Kim Jung-sook as “Lady Kim Jong-un” and President Moon as “North president.”
TV stations should take responsibility for these blunders. Putting a North Korean flag under the face of the South Korean president should not be taken lightly.
But he is misled.
In 2008, MBC repeatedly misspelled former President Lee Myung-bak’s name in captions. Similar misspelling went out during a 2017 report on the impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye. Some bloggers praised the broadcasters for their clever puns. The broadcasters were not forced to apologize or sack anyone at the time.
Broadcasters inevitably have to fear the government as it holds control over licensing and funding. Regulatory authorities should be given independence so the government does not abuse its interests through broadcasters. But it is hard to let such power go. The tradition is handed down from one government to another.
Few would dare to “deliberately” anger the president and mistakes happen. The networks should take responsibility and correct the system if it is repeated. But stretching the mistake and suspecting intentionality is going overboard.
Korea’s press freedom ranking went up to 41st this year from 70th in 2016. The government cannot outright meddle in the press as in the past. In fact, the press has become increasingly watchful of public opinion especially regarding reports related to the president. The ruling power is as picky about liberal media as it is about conservative outlet when it comes to the president.
Populist power also has gone too far. Public petitions demanding the government stop funding Yonhap News TV gained more than 200,000 signatures. Moon advised a reporter from the network who was complaining about being bombarded by the president’s supporters to try to take things in stride.
He should be giving the same advice to his aides who jump on every report about their boss.
JoongAng Ilbo, April 26, Page 34