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New Publications Spring Up to Explore S. Korean Press Freedom

Times Staff Writer

Two months ago, Koh Jong Sok, 29, quit a $1,600-a-month reporter’s job with an established South Korean newspaper to go to work at $475 a month for a newspaper that will publish its first edition May 15.

Koh is excited despite the pay cut. His job with the new paper, Hankyoreh, will be to head a staff of five reporters doing nothing but monitoring mass media coverage and the government’s press policy. No other newspaper or magazine in South Korea has attempted such a task.

Hankyoreh, which means “one national people,” itself represents a near-revolutionary change for South Korea. It will become the first new daily newspaper in South Korea since authoritarian former President Chun Doo Hwan closed 179 periodicals, purged 800 journalists and brought wire services, TV and radio under the government’s thumb in 1980.

President Roh Tae Woo, who took office Feb. 25, promised to allow press freedom as part of a transformation of South Korea from authoritarian to democratic government. And the onrush of new publications--and Hankyoreh in particular--will provide a key test of how far Roh’s new government is willing to go.

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“The press opening will bring changes,” said one Western diplomat who asked not to be identified by name. “If the government reverses itself, that certainly will be a gauge of its commitment to democracy.”

At least 21 other new newspapers are expected to join Hankyoreh in challenging the established mass media by the year’s end, officials of the Ministry of Culture and Information say. Eight, including Hankyoreh and one backed by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, were officially registered April 25.

Already, about 900 new non-newspaper periodicals, which now need only inform the ministry of their intent to publish, have come into existence--and notifications continue to come in “at the rate of five a day,” a ministry official said. The ministry also has received applications from groups seeking to set up five new radio stations, according to another ministry official.

More aggressive reporting from new competitors could shake established newspapers out of a lethargy that many critics say was implanted during years of repression.

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Signs of change are visible already. Journalists say that government “guidelines” and overt intervention have ceased. No longer do the media devote slavish attention to Roh, as they did to Chun when he was president. “No comparison” can be made between the new freedoms and Chun’s regime, said the Western diplomat.

But news and editorials favorable to Roh and the government still dominate the established media, and omissions or downplaying of events unfavorable to the ruling group continue, journalists said. Self-censorship in criticism of both Roh and Chun also is evident, “although they are becoming more bold about criticizing Chun,” the Western diplomat said.

Were Victims of Purges

In such a media climate, Hankyoreh will be an innovation. Although its editors say they intend to be neutral and fair in reporting, few question that the paper will become the first clearly anti-government newspaper in South Korea.

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More than 60 of its 150 reporters were victims of government purges of journalists in 1975 and 1980, when they lost their jobs and were barred from finding new ones in journalism. Thirty, like Koh, quit jobs with established newspapers to gain greater freedom of expression. And many of the others are former university students who were expelled or forced to drop out of college because of protests against authoritarian rule.

“All are here because of a sense of mission,” said Im Jai Kyung, editor-in-chief of the paper, noting that his salary of $1,081 a month is about one-third of what the editor of an established daily newspaper makes.

One of the 1980 purge victims, Im has held no regular job since then and was jailed for six months during Chun’s regime.

Launched last fall by a committee of 3,000 “supporters,” the paper he will edit has gathered $6.8 million in capital by selling stock to more than 30,000 shareholders. Among the supporters was Cardinal Stephen Kim, the primate of the country’s 2 million Roman Catholics, who once said that a free press is more valuable to South Korea than democracy itself.

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For Hankyoreh, birth has not been without pain. The fledgling newspaper set up its second-floor office over a factory building in a remote, dingy industrial section of Seoul only after a series of rebuffs from potential landlords, Im said.

There was a long delay in obtaining a tax registration number. The government prevented the newspaper from running advertising on television and dragged its feet on registration for nearly three months, Im charged.

Yet to be determined is the attitude of the established press, which dominates “reporters’ clubs” that exclude non-members from attending news conferences given by government officials and other major news sources.

Circulation of 400,000

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“We are determined to approach government officials . . . even if the (reporters’ club) system isn’t abolished,” Im said.

Hankyoreh will begin publishing a morning newspaper with 400,000 circulation--about two-thirds that of the respected Dong-A Ilbo--six days a week. With eight pages, it will have only half the space of established newspapers. But it hopes to expand to 16 pages by the summer, after winning stockholders’ approval for a capital increase needed to buy more equipment, Im said.

“Ours will be a newspaper without any ideology, neither pro-government nor anti-government” Im declared. “It will be produced by the staff associated with no political party, no religious group, nor any business interest.”

In contrast to its policy on new newspapers, the government is biding its time on broadcasting. Culture Ministry officials, who asked not to be identified, said only that a decision on a new broadcasting structure--including implementation of a new law to preclude government intervention--is expected “within this year.”

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Journalists say television news enjoys less freedom than the print media. But even such rebels as Choi Yong Ik, a reporter for Munhwa Broadcasting Corp. (MBC), one of the two national, government-owned television networks, said he is now far more optimistic about fair and accurate reporting than he was last summer, immediately after Roh’s promises of reform.

Fairness Watchdogs

“I had no idea that things would be this different,” he said.

Choi led a movement that launched a reporters’ labor union at MBC last December to act as a watchdog of the fairness and accuracy of reporting. Now, one radio network and six newspapers have such unions, he said.

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Kim Sang Ki, an MBC assistant city news editor, said the government has not abandoned an idea that “some guidance is necessary for TV.” Nonetheless, he added, “tremendous change” has occurred since Feb. 25, when Chun left office.

Television coverage of last December’s presidential election, Kim admitted, was biased, as many critics have charged.

“But there is a world of difference between the Fifth Republic (under Chun) and the Sixth Republic (of Roh),” Kim said, adding that “things have changed and are still changing.”

The Western diplomat, while agreeing that television is “much better” now, said that news is “still visually slanted” in favor of the government.

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