South Korea’s Press: The Illusion of Freedom

South Korea’s Press: The Illusion of Freedom

Intricate web of connections, a frowning government, keep a tight leash on reporting

On the surface, South Korea’s media appears to be thriving and even serves as an example to a region where liberal democracy is the exception rather than the norm. The country’s peaceful transition to democracy in the late 1980s promised journalists a newfound freedom to report without fear or favor. 

But reporting without fear or favor doesn’t necessarily mean reporting accurately or truthfully. Much of Korea’s mainstream media culture is built on an intricate web of connections between the outlets, the government and big companies from the top down. Because of a combination of unique historical and cultural factors, producing news in this environment boils down to access to the elites and how to get it, and how to get the subjects of stories to pay either to keep their names in print or out of it.

The Korean media’s closest cousin is Japan, with the drawbacks of Japan’s system. It came into being in the 1920s during Japan’s colonial rule and was largely modeled after the Japanese newspaper system. One feature born of this history overwhelmingly shapes how journalism is produced to this day: a culture of journalist beats, or chulib cheo revolving around exclusive press clubs. Each government ministry and chaebol typically has its own press club that serves as its sole official source of information. 

Only members, typically journalists from the most powerful media, get access inside. These exclusive groups of journalists decide which other media organizations can join — and which can be kicked out. As a cub reporter with Gyeonggi Province-based TV network OBS, Heo Eun-sun was tasked with winning access to the Ministry of Education for her employer. To prove she was a “good girl,” as she put it, not out to challenge the established order, Heo had to demurely accept invitations to eat and drink with her seniors.

“At that time, I wanted to quit because I didn’t know if I was a journalist or a businesswoman,” she says. Government officials or company executives eat together with reporters, “they become very friendly, and they listen to stories from their beat, only from their beat,” says Choi Kyung-young, a former reporter with the Korean Broadcasting System, the country’s national broadcaster who left to join Newstapa, a new investigative outlet.  “They never prove their stories. They never investigate.”

Outside pressures on the media reach past the reporter network into management itself. On the corporate side, blackmailing conglomerates to leverage ad revenue is a newspaper industry norm.  Speaking on condition of anonymity out of fear of losing her job, one journalist at a financial newspaper describes how her editors ask for advertisements. If the company doesn’t give the money, usually the reporter “has to write something bad about the company,” she says, adding that it is common practice at most newspapers 

Her newspaper regularly carries glowing coverage of chaebol in exchange for money. Unlike clearly labeled “advertorials” in Western newspapers, such quid-pro-quo articles give the reader no indication of the financial exchange. 

Other pressure takes on a more personal flavor. Once, the journalist said, an editor altered her story to put a negative spin on a visit by Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon to the site of a major development project. The edited article portrayed the mayor’s visit as motivated by concern over his image rather than genuine interest in safety fears surrounding the project. The reason? The newspaper chairman disliked Park.  

Information from unnamed government officials routinely forms the basis of articles without question, as was the case with reports during the recent Asian Games that the South Korean government intended to pay the cost of North Korea’s participation in the sporting event. 

In the wake of the April 2014 disaster involving the ferry Saewol, which capsized, killing at least 330  eople, mostly secondary school students, Joongang Ilbo reported on lax safety standards at businesses including a Seoul night club. Despite claiming the club was putting patrons’ “lives at risk by failing to provide sufficient fire exits,” the article declined to name the venue. Similarly, a rash of articles in August about a bar that briefly banned Africans over Ebola fears declined to identify the venue, JR Pub in Itaewon. 

“Every time I would write an article, when I quoted someone, I referred to them by their name, but some colleagues and superiors thought this was not a good idea,” said Heo, who worked as a reporter for SisaIN magazine after leaving OBS. “I disagreed with that.”

Controlling the airwaves

Choi Kyung-young joined KBS in 1995, working his way to the status of a high-profile investigative reporter at the country’s largest broadcaster over a decade. In 2005, he was part of a team that uncovered massive tax evasion by a raft of public figures including judges and lawmakers. The story sparked the first resignation of a Supreme Court justice in Korean history and saw Choi and his colleagues shortlisted as finalists for the Investigative Reporters and Editors Awards held in the United States.

But Choi’s position at the peak of investigative journalism didn’t last. In August 2008, he and fellow journalists protested former President Lee Myung-bak’s appointment of Lee Byung-soon as KBS president. They saw the move, along with the earlier removal of former chief Jung Yun-joo for alleged mismanagement, as an attempt to influence output at the broadcaster. Before long, Choi was pulled out of investigation and transferred to the sports desk.

Three other journalists and producers at the broadcaster lost their jobs after protesting the appointment. Choi is convinced that he, too, was targeted for his opposition to the conservative former president’s choice of chief. “My investigative team was literally disintegrated, disappeared,” Choi said. 

Frustrated, Choi took a career break in 2009 to study in the US for a master’s degree in journalism. After returning to find the atmosphere at KBS little changed under yet another CEO, Choi left the station for good in 2013.

Accusations of political interference at Korea’s broadcast networks have been relentless in recent years. In 2012, journalists at KBS, MBC and YTN, as well as wire service Yonhap News Agency went on strike to protest management appointments and the quashing of stories critical of the government. The KBS president at the time, Kim In-kyu, had been a media adviser on the campaign of former President Lee. MBC chief Kim Jae-chul, meanwhile, was also known as a close associate of the president.

KBS journalists went on strike again this May, accusing yet another KBS chief, Gil Hwan-young, of taking orders from the Blue House. The protests came after news chief Kim Si-gon claimed that Gil had attempted to control Sewol coverage at the behest of the presidential office. Just a week prior, junior reporters at the broadcaster had released a statement claiming coverage had been manipulated to give a favorable impression of the government.

The Basic Press Law, enacted in 1980 under the Chun Doo-hwan administration, established a long list of reporting “guidelines” that, among other things, forbade criticism of the government, support for North Korea and attempts to “confuse” the national economic order.

Such naked censorship is no longer confided in law. In its place, the government exercises wide discretion to censure reporting deemed objectionable through warnings, fines or suspension of broadcasting licenses. The president and the ruling party each nominate three of its nine members.

One of many broadcasts to fall foul of the commission this year was a KBS report on a verdict that the prosecution framed a North Korean defector as a spy for Pyongyang. The broadcaster was slapped with a warning, the second-highest sanction, for the report. 

“That exposé was severely sanctioned by the KCSC for broadcasting something that may affect the prosecutorial ability to reverse the decision in the higher court,” says Park Kyung-shin, a law professor at Korea University and former member of the Korea Communications Standards Commission, a body under the KCC that regulates broadcast media and Internet content. . “All the program did was report on why the prosecutors lost in court in the first place.”

He says that the commission only takes action against reports that clash with the government’s agenda. Another recently sanctioned report, broadcast on cable news channel JTBC, featured a professor critical of the Justice Ministry’s speedy moves to ban the far-left Unified Progressive Party after it was accused of plotting against the state.

The strong hand of government may also be encouraged by the political aspirations of some media people themselves. Heo says that one of her former bosses at OBS later ran as a National Assembly candidate for the ruling Saenuri Party in Incheon. 

“Many politics section editors and deputy editors, society section editors and deputy editors, bureau chiefs and presidents of broadcasters have a dream of being a politician in the near future,” she says. 

Freedom of expression

Like democracies everywhere, South Korea promises its people freedom of expression.  But in reality, the right to speak without sanction is weakly upheld in one of Asia’s freest countries, according to Shin Pyeong, a law professor at Kyungpook National University in Daegu.

 “Freedom of speech cannot be regulated as a rule in the U.S., whereas it can be controlled for public purposes in Korea. The difference in perceiving freedom of speech (in Korea) eventually led to considerable regulation of the freedom,” Shin said.

Unlike in the US, where truth is typically an absolute defense, Korean law allows for the prosecution of truthful speech if it is not “solely in the public interest.” The law also carries the threat of up to seven years’ imprisonment, whereas in other jurisdictions like the U.K., defamation is a civil matter.

Especially significant for journalists, there is relatively little protection of speech about public figures. In the US, public figures rarely sue and almost never win. In South Korea, it is unremarkable for even the president to file a defamation suit. Almost every presidential administration, liberal and conservative alike, has taken journalists to court over their reporting. The exception, the administration of Roh Tae-woo, oversaw the prosecution’s arrest of three dozen KBS reporters in 1990 for an illegal strike. 

In August, a number of local civic groups sued a Japanese foreign correspondent for supposedly defaming President Park in an article on rumors about her whereabouts on the day of the Sewol accident. While the law allows third parties to file a suit on someone’s behalf, Park could choose to halt the prosecution as the subject of the alleged defamation. Tatsuya Kato, a correspondent with the Sankei Shimbun, a newspaper generally disliked in South Korea for its conservative and nationalistic leanings, was indicted in October and faces up to seven years in prison.

Simply translating the offending article, meanwhile, has put one local online news outlet in the authorities’ sights. In September, prosecutors raided the home of a NewsPro reporter to locate a translator who transcribed the original article into Korean. 

No comprehensive statistics have been collected on the number of defamation suits taken against journalists. However, 3,223 people overall were convicted of criminal defamation last year. Meanwhile, the Press Arbitration Commission, a mediation body that can order outlets to pay compensation and issue retractions, handled almost 2,500 cases in 2013, the vast majority of which involved alleged defamation. Cases that do not see a settlement, which accounted for some 12 percent last year according to a sample of the data, are likely to go to court. 

Heo Eun-sun says that her last workplace, SisaIN magazine, was threatened with legal action “almost every week.” Heo herself has been investigated twice for defamation, including once for an article alleging that former Saenuri Party mayoral candidate for Seoul, Na Kyung-won, spent exorbitant amounts on skin care. Luckily for Heo, a drawn-out investigation eventually came down in her favor.

Such a repressive climate can have tragic real-world consequences, notes Korea University’s Park. Three months before the Sewol sank, a former employee of Chonghaejin, the ferry’s operator, reported the overloading of the ship to the ombudsman under the presidential office but was ignored.  Because even truthful statements can be considered defamatory, Park says, whistle-blowers are strongly dissuaded from coming forward.

“If the environment was favorable for whistle-blowing or raising issues or reporting facts, I think he (the ferry employee) would have just put it on the Internet instead of going to ombudsman services to talk about the persistent overloading problem.”

The bungled response to the sinking may also have been exacerbated by tepid reporting in a climate hostile to free speech, Park says. He notes that on the day of the sinking, one survivor told both KBS and MBC in interviews that the Coast Guard had done little to rescue the passengers of the ferry. Neither station, however, aired his remarks.

“What’s really unfortunate was that he gave the interview on the day of the sinking, at 4 p.m. And the broadcast media could have just reported it right there, because they were covering it 24 hours a day already, and had that gone out at that time … the subsequent rescue efforts from that point on could have been wildly different, pushed by public opinion.”

Search for solutions

So is there any hope for Korea’s media to reform? Park puts priority on scrapping criminal defamation and the current licensing regime for broadcasters. For Choi, the culture of exclusive press clubs is the “fundamental” problem. 

Above all, pundits agree on one common remedy: the public. There is wide agreement that citizens, as media consumers, bear heavy responsibility for the quality of their media. Part of the problem, critics say, is they are not living up to this responsibility.

John Power is a freelance journalist living in South Korea.  A much more complete version of this appeared in Groove, a local South Korean publication. It can be found here

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