SOUTH KOREA: Strong support to those who are struggling for freedom of the media 

From the history of the media in South Korea, the government of the military dictatorship controlled media as well as newspapers and instructed them as to what should be posted and broadcasted. There was one journalist who collected the instructions given by then government and revealed them with other journalists both in a magazine and by holding a press conference in 1986. Despite the fact that many journalists were aware of this malpractice, three journalists took that risk and at the end, they were indicted under numerous acts including the National Security Act. They were convicted but released as a suspended sentence with the help of national and international support. But due to their struggle, such direct control was believed to extinct.

It is reported that when the current government came into power in 2008, Mr. Jeong Yeon-ju, a CEO of the Korea Broadcasting System (KBS) was asked to resign but refused. The Board of Audit and Inspection (BAI) started a ‘special investigation’ and based on the findings by the BAI, Mr. Jeong was dismissed (see further: annual report in 2008). It was highly questionable whether the Prosecution Service indicted Mr. Jeong for accepting the mediation from the court. Nonetheless, he was indicted for breach of trust. He filed a complaint and the court later found that he was illegally dismissed and his acceptance of the mediation was not in breach of trust. However, no effective remedy remains available except that Mr. Jeong is free from all charges from the court.

The cases above are only a few out of many describing that government’s attempts to control the media so that news contents of the media either supports government policy or are declined to deal with unlawful actions by the government. As shown in Korean history, lessening or disappearance of such critical voice and only praising the government is one character of an authoritarian regime. In fact, journalists and staff of the main three broadcasting media such as Munhwa Broadcasting Corporations (MBC), Korea Broadcasting System (KBS) and YTN, one of South Korea’s 24 hour news channels have gone on strike for over a month respectively. Trade unions of each media alleged that news media are praising the government policy and critical reports dramatically reduced. They also alleged that it began after the CEOs of above media were directly or indirectly appointed by the influence from the President.

In fact, out of materials relating to illegal surveillance by the government (AHRC-STM-076-2012), some relevant information on the government’s attempts to control the media is also found to support the union’s allegation. When the position of CEO of YTN was vacant in 2009, an evaluation report was made by the order from BH, standing for Blue House, the Presidential House. According to the report, the changes of staff and journalists who were deemed to be inclined toward the left made by the new board member were done well, who soon after became the CEO. When the trade union went on strike against the new CEO, the leader of the union was charged with obstruction of business. When the leader received a penalty of fine at the district court, the report said to request the Prosecution Service for the appeal.

After democratisation, it seems to have been difficult for any government to directly control or intervene in controlling the media and newspapers as the military dictatorship government did in 1980s. In addition, a law was made to secure the tenure of the CEO of KBS. However, as the case of Mr. Jeong indicated, other state institutions were mobilised to investigate every single thing against him. Despite the criticism on the Prosecution Service of its malicious intention of indictment, it proceeded anyway.

Apart from the illegal surveillance on civilians in the newly released materials, it appears clear that the Presidential Office as well as the Prime Minister’s Office was closely involved in controlling the media by way of the appointment of CEOs of the media and afterwards, critical news to the government indeed disappeared. After the changes of CEOs, many producers or journalists who made reports critical to the current government have been transferred to different positions or remote areas. In case of the MBC going on strike, the leaders and other journalists are being sued for obstruction of business and their assets are frozen accordingly.

Despite all these difficulties, for the first time in history, these three media staffs and journalists have been on strike simultaneously and continue to struggle. Each trade union has been already aware of internal control to oppress producers and journalists not to broadcast any news critical of the government. The strike has very good reason for struggle for independence from the political influence or pressures from the government. It has thus received lots of support from the public.

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) strongly supports the unions’ struggle for freedom of media both from the government influence and internal oppression despite the fact that they have faced legal actions and disadvantages of their position. There seems to be a clear reason for the struggle. Their struggle should deserve unanimous support from inside and outside and will provide ideas to other countries where the media is controlled by the government in the region. It is indeed outstanding and significant moment in South Korea in order for producers and journalists to question the very nature of media. The discourse should expand what system is needed for freedom of media from inside and outside interference. It is a strong belief that the struggle will reward the freedom of opinion and expression in the future.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-079-2012
Countries : South Korea,
Issues : Freedom of expression,