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Title   Media critics fear threat to press freedom
No   1966 Date   2008-04-29 Hit   215
Could the bad old days be coming back? Last week¡¯s announcement of a new media policy by the government of President Roh Moo-hyun caused howls of protests from journalists, academics and politicians worried that Korea¡¯s past legacy of media suppression could be returning in the guise of a liberal administration¡¯s desire to reform the media.
On the surface the new media policy endorsed by the cabinet on Tuesday could be seen as a simple attempt to make reporters work harder to get information. Under the plan, drafted by the Government Information Agency, the media rooms used by journalists covering government agencies will be closed, thus severing the direct contact reporters now enjoy with officials. Instead of routinely talking to a variety of officials, the government says it will dole out the news through controlled briefings. If reporters want to dig for more, they can use their wits or the Freedom of Information Act.
Is this a threat to press freedom or simply a way for the government to more effectively tell its story?
If the plan goes into effect as outlined, journalists and civic groups say it could have a chilling effect on the press by eliminating the give and take between reporters and officials.
The notion of controlled briefings being used to spoon-feed information to the people has caused some observers to fear that Roh intends to resurrect the policies of a generation ago, when Korea¡¯s news media were used as a mouthpiece for the military regimes.
Media Today, an in-house weekly published by the liberal National Union of Media Workers, which represents 17,000 members and is an umbrella group covering dozens of media companies, asked if the Roh administration was trying to resurrect the tactics of control used by the Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo Hwan regimes.
¡°There is an old Korean saying that the more you hate someone, the more you will try to be like him,¡± an editorial in the weekly said. ¡°The Blue House¡¯s media policy is an example. The liberals in the Blue House used to hate the conservatives during the dictatorship, but now they are copying their tactics.¡±
The union is often on the side of the liberals and it has said that some positive developments emerged from the Roh administration¡¯s earlier 2003 media policy, which opened government press briefings and facilities to small media outlets such as Internet news sites. But this time, the union says, the administration has gone too far.
¡°The Roh administration¡¯s policy reminds us of the Chun administration¡¯s ¡®media massacre,¡¯¡± the editorial said, referring to a 1980 move by the military regime to restructure the media industry through forced consolidation.
Local wire agencies were absorbed into a single state-run agency and many provincial newspapers were shut down. At the time the government also forced independent broadcasters to merge with the state-run Korean Broadcasting System.
The move was justified by a law, the ¡°Basic Press Act,¡± which made censorship legal. The Chun administration further controlled the media by issuing ¡°reporting guidelines¡± that directed news organizations to follow its lead on everything from content and editorial tone to the font size used for headlines. The law was abolished after Chun ended his term in 1987.
¡°When the military regime shut down many newspapers, fired hundreds of journalists and forced the mergers of media companies, the measures were defended as a ¡®voluntary clean-up of the media to improve the journalists¡¯ qualifications and abilities,¡¯¡± the editorial said.
Similarly, the Park regime closed 15 daily newspapers and use the state-run media to promote government policies. Park punished journalists who bucked the official line.
Comparing the current move to Park¡¯s approach, Media Today said, ¡°This time, the Roh administration¡¯s policy is carried out under a more sophisticated banner. The Blue House¡¯s plan to consolidate press rooms will have the same effect as reducing the number of journalists... the media¡¯s function to check and monitor the administration will be weakened and many reporters will have nothing to do.¡±
The Government Information Agency is unapologetic. Ahn Young-bae, deputy director of the agency, issued a statement Friday saying that the media policy is different from anything done by the Park and Chun regimes.
¡°At least, we did not gag the press,¡± Ahn said, referring to the critical headlines generated by the policy. Ahn said the media were hostile to the upcoming changes mostly because ¡°journalists will be inconvenienced¡± by losing their desks at the ministries. He said the policy will make for better reporters. ¡°I expect that journalists will have to run around more, but their articles will include more viewpoints while relying less on government-fed information.¡±
Experts disagree. ¡°It is a very refined way of suppressing press freedom. The new media policy is similar to the oppression of the past because the government is leading the initiative,¡± said Park Chun-il, a media studies professor at Sookmyung Women¡¯s University. ¡°The Park and Chun administrations used forced mergers, shutdowns of media outlets and censorship as their tools,¡± Park said. ¡°But the Roh administration¡¯s policy is more sophisticated by limiting information.¡±
Vincent Brossel, a spokesperson for Reporters Without Borders, the France-based NGA advocating press freedom, is also concerned about the measures. ¡°The government probably had good intentions to reform its relationship with the press,¡± Brossel said. ¡°But the decision is too radical. Journalists need the press rooms because they need access to information quickly and they need to be able to confirm information accurately.¡± He used the example of Friday¡¯s North Korean missile test, wondering how reporters would be able to confirm the tests if the media are booted out of the Defense Ministry.
Brossel suggests that the system in Korea could be improved short of forcing reporters to leave the ministries. ¡°Reporters¡¯ rooms inside ministries are a good way to check and exchange information with sources,¡± Brossel said. ¡°Press briefings are important, but the journalists should be guaranteed access to information and they should meet public servants to exchange their opinions and views.¡±
¡°Cutting off access is very dangerous,¡± Brossel warned. His group, though, has consistently rated South Korea as having the freest press in the region. In its 2006 Press Freedom Index, South Korea is ranked 31st in the world, ahead of every other country in the region, including Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan. It is not known how the media policy might affect the 2007 rankings.
The National Union of Media Workers took exception to remarks Roh made in January when he said press room reporters connive to control the tone of press coverage to the government¡¯s disadvantage. ¡°It is only natural that experienced reporters¡¯ opinions are respected by other reporters,¡± the union said. ¡°If that is a problem, that shows that the president has a distorted view. Under that theory, one could draw the absurd conclusion that Yonhap News must be reduced in size because it influences the media by providing breaking news information.¡±
¡°The president hates not only major, conservative media but also small, progressive media,¡± the union said. ¡°The president always makes it clear that only the government mouthpiece is fair and accurate.¡±
Ahn insisted the government would improve the current briefing system and the Freedom of Information Act. ¡°Barring unauthorized access to public offices is just common sense,¡± he said, adding that reporters will be able to meet with public servants when they follow proper procedures through public affairs offices. ¡°It would be embarrassing for the media to demand unlimited access to government offices, so they are disguising the situation by saying they will not be able to interview public servants,¡± Ahn said.
Under the Freedom of Information Act, revised in 2004, a government office must decide whether to make public requested information within 10 days of receiving a petition, but reporters and others say the system often does not work. ¡°In February, we filed petitions to eight city and district offices to obtain information on apartment construction permits,¡± said Cha Seong-ok, a senior official with the Citizens¡¯ Coalition for Economic Justice. ¡°The petitions all were demanding the same information, but only six districts provided it. The standards were all different and sometimes crucial information was left out.¡±
Lee Jae-geun of the group People¡¯s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy said, ¡°Public offices always make sensitive information confidential. Even if the media use the Freedom of Information Act, journalists won¡¯t be able to access information freely.¡±
With the battle becoming more bitter, critics are now questioning even the existence of the Government Information Agency. The Grand National Party vowed to shut down the agency after the new media policy was announced.
Established under President Kim Dae-jung in 1999, it operates two online services, the Blue House Briefing and the National Government Briefing; a bi-weekly magazine, Korea Plus; and KTV, the government¡¯s cable television channel. The agency¡¯s budget is about 20 billion won and it has 200 employees.
Sookmyung Women¡¯s University¡¯s Park recommended that each ministry promote its own policies independently while the Government Information Agency should concentrate on promoting Korea overseas. He also urged that journalists take this opportunity to improve their reporting methods rather than solely relying on the administration¡¯s briefings.

By Ser Myo-ja Staff Writer [myoja@joongang.co.kr]