|Under the leadership of President Kim Dae Jung, the South Korean media
are generally freer than at any time in the recent past. He has encouraged
criticism of failed economic policies and spoken out forcefully in favor
of democratic values. A former political prisoner who was once under a death
sentence from a past military government, Kim was a hero to newspaper reporters
and editors who frequently risked government sanctions and harassment to
campaign for democracy in the late 1980s. In a dramatic demonstration of
the turnaround in political fortunes, former dissident reporter Kim Chong-Chol
was named president and publisher of Yonhap News, the official government
news agency, in June. In 1976, the military government forced him out of
his job at the newspaper Dong-a Ilbo for advocating press freedom.
Given President Kim's reputation as a champion of democracy, it is especially
disturbing that he and his supporters have used existing criminal libel statutes,
long a tool of authoritarian governments, against his right-wing opponents.
Choi Jang-Jip of Korea University, a close adviser to the president, successfully
sued Monthly Chosun, a right-wing magazine, for libel when it
accused him of being pro-North Korea. A Seoul district court banned the sale
and circulation of the magazine for the month of November.
And two conservative journalists were convicted and imprisoned on criminal
libel charges brought by Kim's political party, the National Congress for
New Politics. Ham Yun Shik, the publisher of One Way magazine,
was sentenced to one year in prison in July. Son Chung Mu, the publisher
of Inside the World magazine, was sentenced to two years in prison
in October. Both men were accused of having defamed Kim during the election
campaign with allegations that he was a communist sympathizer. CPJ appealed
to Kim to drop the charges against the two publishers on the grounds that
in a democracy libel should be treated as a civil matter and journalists
should not be jailed for what they write or publish. The president's office
failed to respond to CPJ's appeal.
As South Korea's economy foundered, the structure and performance of the
news media have come under increasing scrutiny. Mainstream South Korean news
outlets failed to apply a critical eye to economic reporting before the Asian
slump, a fact that many analysts say contributed to the crash. "We journalists
led them astray," veteran business reporter Sohn Byoung Soo said of his readers
in an interview with the Far Eastern Economic Review in November.
"We were guilty of printing government statements without checking the facts."
Politically powerful families and massive conglomerates control the mainstream
media, and some reporters say they have been discouraged from digging deeply
into economic mismanagement issues which might displease their bosses. A
nonprofit watchdog group, the Citizen's Coalition for Media Reform, headed
by Kim Joong Bae, a well-known journalist, was established in September to
monitor ethical practices and examine the structure of media ownership.