The day the press died
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
I have been in journalism for 30 years. I began in 1991. The profession has not been exactly what I had imagined — writing stories and interviewing celebrities in various fields. The press world was a never-ending hunt for hidden truth behind every incident and issue. We had to slog it out all kinds of harsh situations and fight to remove very stubborn obstacles to truth. The neatly printed newspaper does not reflect the hardship behind each article. But reporters must move their feet constantly underwater like waterfowl gliding across a lake with frightening depths.
A newspaper writer fears most being incorrect in reporting. Even a tiny typo can bring about chagrin. The mortification deepens if the reported detail is incorrect as it would cause loss of confidence. No reporter intentionally wishes to err or be inaccurate. But no one and no story is perfect. Upon making blunders, one must immediately correct the report. Readers won’t tolerate even a small typo, not to mention fake news.
Newsrooms usually have strict policies on fact-checking. All articles go through a multi-level process. Each report must be cross-checked. Even an analysis column must be strictly based on facts without bias. Otherwise, a media outlet cannot survive in the free market of ideology.
In “Areopagitica,” written by British poet John Milton on the principle of the right to freedom of speech and expression for the Parliament in England in 1644, he championed freedom of speech in the “marketplace of ideas.” The powerful argument for the freedom of speech and against censorship in publishing has become a foundation of western democracy.
Although I mostly write about economic matters, I cannot stay silent when the country’s freedom of press is in jeopardy. Criticism of public policies from real estate measures that fanned prices to radical hikes in the minimum wage, enforcement of a shorter workweek and phasing out of nuclear reactors could become difficult if our freedom of press is undermined. The revised Media Arbitration Act could restrict the media’s monitoring of excesses and deceptions by the powers that be, such as hyping the effect of raising the minimum wage or claiming that real estate prices are stable even though they are at sky-high levels.
It sad to see a government that calls its progressive suppressing the country’s hard-earned freedom of speech and expression. The previous liberal government under President Roh Moo-hyun in 2005 also attempted to tame the press. It shut down press rooms and adopted regular briefings by government offices. The normally competitive field of journalism was arbitrarily restricted by political forces. Reporters were restricted to rows of small desks and told to write things. Still, they endured the changes.
This time is different. All rival media outlets and organizations have stood up against the new law. The stipulation of unheard-of punitive damages, judgments on deliberateness of false news, and cutting off access to articles the government does not like can seriously erode freedom of the press. Those out to gag the media must remember that truth prevails in the end. No one can suppress the human desire to speak and express themselves freely.