Regime’s TV Boycotted : South Korea--Mistrust of Media Grows
Television crews from the government-run Korean Broadcasting System recently filmed some of the biggest anti-government rallies since Gen. Chun Doo Hwan seized power in 1980. But not one frame of their film is known to have been put on the air.
In Pusan, the site of one of the rallies, where opposition leader Kim Young Sam was to deliver a public speech, 43,000 government employees were reported to have gone off on a picnic. Kim said they were forced to leave the city to prevent them from listening to his speech.
The local press reported the picnic but made no mention at all of Kim, although he is a popular figure. Before President Chun’s takeover, Kim was the leader of the chief opposition party and had been elected to the National Assembly for eight consecutive terms.
Not on TV Since 1980
“Newspapers are under orders to avoid publishing anything about me if at all possible,” Kim said in a recent interview. “I have not spoken on television since May, 1980.”
The KBS crew was jeered at the Pusan rally, not an unusual happening here anymore. Two years ago, a KBS team filming a demonstration was taken hostage by students and held for 15 hours.
Many Koreans believe that the film shot by KBS crews at anti-government demonstrations is handed over to the police. As a consequence, Koreans are cautious around KBS cameras. Not long ago, an interpreter hired by a visiting reporter hid behind a pillar while KBS cameras recorded an interview with an opposition politician.
“The glare of the lights bothers me,” the interpreter said.
Popular dissatisfaction with the South Korean media has reached unprecedented levels in recent months. A boycott of KBS by viewers has gained enough momentum that the government has become concerned.
Although KBS is entirely government-owned, it broadcasts commercials and collects a monthly fee from its viewers. As part of the boycott, viewers refuse to pay the fee.
Lee Jong Ryul, a representative of the political party that Chun set up after his takeover, announced that “the Democratic Justice Party recognizes the problem in the people’s boycott move,” and he added: “The party has taken actions to accommodate the people’s wishes. One of these will be fair reporting.”
Still, most Koreans continue to be skeptical about KBS’s intentions. After all, KBS is at the center of a sophisticated system of media control set up soon after Chun took over the government.
The newspaper Dong-A Ilbo recently published excerpts from a National Assembly debate in which opposition politicians raised questions about how KBS could afford to build a gymnasium and a golf course, and how it could finance lobbying activities in the United States.
Lee, a deputy chief of the government party’s policy board, said he felt that public confidence in KBS could be restored if “some of the institutional arrangements that have been in place but not utilized by the corporation” were activated.
It is just such arrangements, however, that the opposition objects to, as do some ordinary viewers, for KBS is under the control of a committee appointed by the president. All broadcast material is saved for a month and then reviewed by the Ministry of Culture and Information.
All South Korean broadcasting stations that are permitted to carry general news are either owned or controlled by the government. KBS holds 65% of the shares in the Munhwa Broadcasting Co., the other main TV and radio network. Two other private networks were forced to merge with KBS after the Chun takeover. The Christian Broadcasting System, which before the Chun takeover was often critical of the government, was forbidden after 1980 to carry anything but religious programs.
Besides MBC, KBS also controls two newspapers and is the most powerful shareholder in South Korea’s only news agency, Yonhap. Nominally Yonhap is private, but its president is a former government official. Yonhap has a monopoly on the transmission of domestic news, and it is the only organization through which foreign news agencies can distribute news and features.
News Play Managed
Thanks to this centralization, censorship is hardly necessary. A South Korean reporter remarked, “The government lets us know how it wants something handled beforehand.”
An example: When a South Korean movie director and his actress wife who had been living for years in North Korea sought asylum at the U.S. Embassy in Vienna earlier this year, the government ordered that nothing be said about it in the press until further notice.
Two days later, South Korean newspapers all put the story on their front pages, and all emphasized that the couple would be welcomed back to South Korea. But a few days later, when it became apparent that the couple had chosen to go to the United States, the story was dropped until the couple went public in Washington last month.
A senior official sought to justify the government’s guidance of the news media by recalling the confusion that existed when “there were too many newspapers and agencies.” “From the point of view of Koreans,” he said, “the media lost self-regulatory mechanisms.”
Publications Shut Down
Early on, the Chun government shut down 172 publications and arranged for the dismissal of 683 reporters as part of what it called a purification.
The official who said there were too many newspapers said: “The government requests that the media report events in a way not to incite people, and to refrain from demagoguery. The government would like to see a certain balance in reporting.”
As defined by the government, balance seems to require that newspapers report on Page 1 such events as the president and his wife entertaining primary school students, while relegating student demonstrations to the back page.
Editorial writers for the most part toe the government line. On Feb. 13, the English-language Korea Herald lamented that opposition party members, student activists and church groups were engaged in an “illegitimate drive” to collect signatures in support of a constitutional change to permit direct election of a new president.
But when President Chun, apparently under pressure from Washington, approved the signature campaign, the Herald took a different approach, apparently forgetting that earlier it had seen the campaign as a potential danger.
Still, the South Korean system of news management works smoothly. A rare exception was the sudden retirement of a cartoonist from the newspaper Hangook Ilbo after he introduced a character who looked very much like President Chun.
“The government never specifically requested his removal,” the government official said. “To speak frankly, he reached the age of retirement last year, but he also drew a cartoon insulting a head of state, and this is against the law in Korea.”
Chun’s handling of the press is regarded here as moderate, compared to the practices followed by the regime of his predecessor, Park Chung Hee, who was assassinated in 1979. Strong-arm tactics against the press are rare--or have been since the purge of 1980. And the government has seen to it that those who were kept on have a comfortable life.
A fund that draws on KBS advertising revenues subsidizes the education, through college, of the sons and daughters of newsmen. The fund also underwrites newsmen’s foreign travel--in a country where foreign travel is a luxury.
Editor, Deputy Detained
An exception to the relatively polite treatment of the press was the overnight interrogation and beating last year of the editor-in-chief of Dong-A Ilbo and his deputy. The ostensible reason for their detention, which was not reported here, was the breaking of a government publication date. But it is widely believed that the action was intended as a sign of general dissatisfaction with the paper.
If it was meant to intimidate, it seems to have failed. Dong-A reporters delight in describing the excesses of overzealous police officials. The paper gave prominent treatment recently to an order by the police chief of Seoul’s northern district that required taxi drivers to report subversive conversations by passengers. It also followed a police campaign against people who “spread false rumors” and described the arrest of two drunks complaining to each other about the quality of their lives.
Few Get Jobs Back
It is difficult to learn much about the fate of the journalists who were purged. Few of them have been permitted to return to their jobs, and most are shy about meeting foreign reporters. One who agreed to be interviewed prefaced virtually every remark with the words, “Please don’t use my name.”
Many journalists who were dismissed from major national papers now work for publications that deal with subjects like golf and fishing.
According to the one who agreed to be interviewed, “brave reporters write articles criticizing the Park regime, but the readers are clever and they can see that the writer is actually attacking the present government.”
Nonetheless, the purge is still taking its toll. A Western diplomat said: “Newspapers no longer get the best college graduates. The sons of newsmen don’t want to be newsmen, and newsmen don’t encourage their sons to be newsmen.”