In late February, Roh Moo-hyun was inaugurated as the 16th president of the Republic of Korea. As soon as Roh stepped into the president’s oval office at the Blue House, he targeted the Korean press as an institution that he intended to reform. And he began this task by giving government officials a “not to do” list to break the old practices that had characterized government and press relations.

On the president’s list was an order that no members of his executive branch were to subscribe to the “street edition” of the daily newspapers. (In Korea, morning newspapers are available as “street editions” on the previous evening.) In past governments, officials hunted for unfavorable news coverage in street edition and then contacted editors to tell them not to carry such reporting in the morning edition. President Roh compared this practice to “begging,” and ordered those in his administration not to exchange their pride and dignity for this kind of arrangement with the press. Under his new policy, when a government official finds reporting is wrong, challenging the error must be done through legal channels, not by negotiating with reporters or editors or doing anything illegal.

President Roh also advised his employees not to flatter or give favor to reporters and editors so that favorable stories would be written. Cabinet members and government employees were told not to dine or drink with reporters. Roh argued that in doing this, government officials made the media “a powerhouse without responsibility.” For a strong democracy to thrive, he said, “healthy tension between press and the government is vital,” and Roh promised the public he would raise the quality of Korean media to the level of developed nations’ press. He said he wanted the press to become “power with responsibility.”

Journalists and editors were quite unhappy with how the president portrayed the press. Members of the Korean press responded to his actions and orders by contending that they do not change stories because government officials ask them to do so. Drinking and meals never changed stories about the truth, the journalists said, and reporters complained that it is government officials who invited them to bars and restaurants. For the most part, President Roh ignored complaints from the Korean press while continuing to set new rules for engagement with the members of the press.

President Roh instructed that a news briefing room was to be set up at the Blue House so the media could gain direct access to sources in his executive branch. But the president also prohibited correspondents from gaining entry to the office building where his staff members work, explaining that no nation allows open access to the president’s staff. While the staff offices remained off-limits, he allowed a pool of reporters access to activities at his oval office. In Roh’s view, these new measures would enable the press and government officials to devote themselves fully to their duties and provide the basis for democracy to flourish.

The President and the Press

In August, President Roh filed a $2.5 million lawsuit against four newspapers and one opposition lawmaker for their report that a charge of speculative real estate trading had been brought against him. Three of the four newspapers he sued claim a 60 percent share of the country’s readers and are referred to as “majors.” In filing this lawsuit, he became the first president to make a legal claim against the press. Later, when the newspapers protested that while in office he cannot engage in legal action against news reports about him, he agreed to postpone legal action until he finishes his term as president. Also, The Wall Street Journal advised Roh that he should learn from British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who did not sue the British Broadcasting Corporation even though it reported the British government was under suspicion for distorting the facts in order to stage the Iraq War.

During the previous Kim Dae-Jung presidency, it had been these major newspapers (among a total of 23 media companies that were involved in the tax investigation) that had to pay an additional levy resulting from a tax investigation into their operations. Two newspaper owners went to prison for tax evasion, and the wife of one newspaper owner committed suicide during the investigation. These newspaper owners asserted that the tax investigation was a gag on freedom of speech, and international media organizations also supported this contention. The government contended it was a case of business practices (and taxes not paid), not an attempt to cut off free speech.

Roh, who was minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries in this administration, attacked the major newspapers publicly and argued for payment of taxes as the rightful cost of doing business. It was, perhaps, Roh’s support of the tax payment that led to many of the major newspapers criticizing him strongly during his campaign for president. And after his election, workers at these newspapers suspected his media reforms were targeted at them in retribution.

During August, Roh also claimed that since the press had strayed from reporting fairly, government officials should continue to “engage in controversies” with them. A month later Roh was saying that because of accusations and false attacks on him and his government made by members of the press, the people would lose confidence in their work and the result would be that his government would become almost powerless. “We should read the newspapers for fun,” Roh said, in a joking way. “Occasionally I see the newspaper that way.”

President Roh spoke further about the government and members of the press fulfilling their duties in “their proper places.” However, media scholars had a hard time explaining references Roh made to the duties of the media, especially duties the government and the press owe to each other in their relationship.

In Korea, newspapers, television and radio carry more government-related news stories than the press does in other countries. The duties of the Korean press involve telling the news about government actions to readers, viewer and listeners speedily and accurately. However, government officials in Korea, as in other countries, attempt to conceal news that might be sensitive, making it difficult to bring this news to the public. Government officials see this as their duty to do so. These adherences to duty creates tension between those who try to collect information and those who try to hide it, and occasionally these tensions expand into emotional tangles and legal battles.

For example, a government official thinks of himself as being “generous” to the reporters and, in return, wants to be quoted as an only source. But to the reporter, this official is one of several sources. When a story appears in which the news event is characterized differently from how this official saw it, there is anger at the reporter. But the reporter maintains he did his job well by going to a variety of sources to try to get an accurate story. At times these misunderstandings result in lawsuits filed by government officials who insist that reporters acted irresponsibly. Under President Roh, governmental bodies have made 117 legal claims against the press, a significantly higher rate of lawsuits than with any preceding administrations.

Media Regulation vs. Media Reform

Determining what the actual duties should be on each side of this relationship is very difficult and, because the boundaries are not clear, the major newspapers in Korea regard many of President Roh’s orders regarding the press as attempts to regulate the media. And when Koreans hear the words “media regulation,” they are reminded of when the military ruled, and the media were tightly  controlled.  Only “good news,” filtered by government officials, could be delivered to the readers. Back then, if reporters wrote unfavorable stories, those in the government      openly      pushed      news organizations to fire those reporters. If they were not fired, reporters were kept out of government buildings. Such restrictions hampered freedom of the press and stopped the growth of democracy.

Now in Korea, an understanding of the need for media reform is developing among the people. Those who are critical of the press focus on the “majors” and claim they have not been on the side of the people. (It was not surprising when the first newspaper President Roh visited was a “minor” paper.) But when polled, the people insist they do not want media reform to come from government, fearing that will damage democracy. Similarly, other newspapers are also highly critical of the “majors,” saying that they act unfairly in their business practices, such as giving away bicycles to lure new subscribers. This leads to tension among those who work at these various newspapers.

But the news media President Roh is most closely associated with is the Internet, which was responsible for his election, as his campaign was praised on Web sites while it was ignored or criticized by major newspapers. As soon as he became president, Roh allowed the Internet news media to enter the Blue House and cover his executive branch for news stories. He also gave exclusive interviews to reporters for Internet news sites.

The role and position of the Internet news media arouses a lot of controversy in Korea, as it does in other countries. While this method of transmitting news is still developing—as its access to readers, the depth of its news reporting, its reliability and other issues are being sorted out—those in the Internet news media believe they should have the same access to government officials and information as the existing press do.

Reform of the news media is difficult to accomplish. And when most people talk about media reform, the “majors” are the target of their criticism; some suggest that the Internet news media should replace them. Reporters, as a group, also advocate media reform but little agreement can be found on the method or goals, and their debates become divisive as groups of reporters argue with one another.

After a visit to Korea in October 2002, Professor Leonard R. Sussman from the Freedom House, an acknowledged authority on the press in Korea, recommended that a special commission composed of prominent, public-spirited citizens, drawn from relevant sectors—journalism, academia, finance, religion and commerce—should examine the strengths as well as the complaints about the news media, past and present. The commission should hold open hearings and insist on wide coverage and, after much study, it should provide recommendations for media reform.

Such a course could avoid reform of the news media by the government. Instead, public pressure would compel nongovernmental entities to find solutions for problems that have pitted large segments of the public against major journalistic outlets. This approach could possibly avoid vindictive-ness, as the criminalization of past actions would be ruled out. Civil charges might be appropriate, if conducted strictly under the rule of law. If large claims for back payment are sustained by the commission, fair arrangements for long-term payouts should be considered rather than demanding payments that would severely cripple or bankrupt a news institution.

It is not obvious that a special commission of this kind would succeed. Never before has such a commission existed in Korea, and President Roh has not made such a commission a priority when he talks about reforming the media. And some doubt that any resolutions that might come out of it could be made mandatory on the news organizations.

Now it is unclear what will happen to this idea, proposed by Professor Sussman. What members of the press and government officials must realize is they both exist to serve the people. Tensions will always exist between journalists and government officials. That is not going to change. But if serving the people can become the basis for building trust, then both the press and democracy will have a better opportunity to thrive in a system of balance and cooperation.

Kwangchool Lee, a 2000 Nieman Fellow, is bureau chief of the Korean Broadcasting System in Washington, D.C.

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