SEOUL— More than five months into a bitter strike, hundreds of employees at leading South Korean broadcasters are still off the job, not because of bread-and-butter issues such as pay or job security, but what they regard as heavy-handed government efforts to silence them.
Hailed until recently as a beacon of free press in Asia, South Korea is now facing what broadcast journalists complain is the worst media climate since the country's democratization in the 1980s.
Editorial employees of Munhwa Broadcasting Corp., or MBC, walked out Jan. 30 and were followed by journalists at the Korea Broadcasting System, or KBS, the news-only cable channel YTN, and the publicly funded news agency Yonhap.
All voiced the same demands: editorial independence and the resignation of pro-government corporate presidents.
Although workers at KBS, a public broadcasting company, and Yonhap ended their strike recently, the battle continues at MBC, another public broadcaster, and at YTN, a private company whose major stockholders are government-related agencies. The strike at MBC has become the longest in company history.
"The government colonized South Korean public broadcasters and made slaves out of journalists," said Lee Kang-taek, a KBS producer who heads the National Union of Media Workers.
President Lee Myung-bak appointed close associates to the top positions at public broadcast companies and news agencies after he took office in 2008. Kim In-kyu, a media advisor in Lee's election campaign, became chief executive of the KBS network. Kim Jae-chul, a reporter who allegedly was close to Lee, took over at MBC.
Strikers say that major investigative programs were canceled and news stories criticizing the government were dropped or banned from the air.
The trouble began at PD Notebook, MBC's 20-year-old investigative program that won major kudos for exposing a massive cloning fraud by one of South Korea's national heroes, veterinarian Hwang Woo-suk.
In 2008, shortly after Lee became president, the show aired a two-part series on U.S. beef and mad cow disease. It took South Korea by storm, resulting in mass candlelight protests against Lee's plans to reopen the country to American beef imports.
The president's office charged that the show's reporting was malicious and incomplete, and that it caused unrest among the public. Shortly afterward, six producers and writers of the program were accused of libel and also arrested on criminal charges. They were recently cleared and have filed lawsuits against their accusers.
Eventually the investigative nature of the program was minimized, with some of the key producers of the team either transferred or demoted. The program hasn't aired an episode since January.
Overall, MBC's viewership has dropped by half. The company has fought back, filing lawsuits against dozens of union members for "interfering with business." It has hired dozens of freelance journalists and anchors to fill the void.
"The government wanted to have control over public broadcast to get rid of their worries over uncertainty in the news," said Cho Hang-je, communications professor at Busan University. "And that has been the beginning of all the conflict."
Other channels suffered similar troubles. Journalists charge that investigative reports about the environmental effect of a flood-control plan pushed by the Lee administration, a wiretapping scandal and the financing of a home where the president plans to live after leaving office were all killed.
"Citizens who just watch the national TV do not know what is going on because a lot of important news reports are missing," said Lee, the union chief. "They would think that South Korea is peaceful and the government is doing a great job."
In fact, the strikers have enjoyed substantial public support through petition drives, protests and fundraising concerts. In a recent poll, 75% of those who responded said the heads of the media companies should quit.
Limits on media and Internet freedom in South Korea also have come under international scrutiny.
In a report last year, United Nations Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue expressed concern about freedom of expression in South Korea and said the country needed to ensure that the heads of broadcasting corporations were independent.
U.S.-based international press watchdog Freedom House downgraded South Korea's media freedom rating from "free" in 2007 to "partly free" in its 2011 report. It said the change was "to reflect increase in official censorship, particularly of online content, as well as the government's attempt to influence media outlets' news and information content."
At a media forum in March, the president dodged questions about the strike.
"The government only minds whether these walkouts are legal or illegal, or if there are any complaints about them," Lee said. "I hope the companies would come to an agreement and solve the problem by themselves for the people's right to view."
But last month, , MBC fired reporter Park Sung-je and PD Notebook producer Choi Seung-ho for "disturbing the workplace order," bringing the number dismissed to eight.
Two days earlier, union leader Lee collapsed on the 21st day of a hunger strike. In an interview before he was admitted to a hospital, he called on the ruling and opposition parties to intervene.
"And after that the political world will have to leave us alone so we media workers can carry out our duty," Lee said. "Which is telling the truth."
Choi is a special correspondent.