There was no let-up in 2003 in the tension between President Roh Moo-hyun and the conservative press, which the president accused of every kind of evil. Online newspapers continued to develop and offer an alternative to the traditional media.
The government decided in March 2003 to reform the press club system, which gave journalists from the major news media privileged access to official information. The reform programme, called "How to make press rooms work," was introduced by government information agency chief Cho Young-dong, who had been told by President Roh to combat negative reporting about the government.
The rooms in government offices that had been set aside for journalists were turned into press briefing rooms. The hitherto informal contacts between politicians and journalists were henceforth scheduled in advance on request. Journalists with the leading media were angry about the changes but the smaller newspapers and news websites were pleased because they had not had access to senior officials in the past. The Journalists Association of Korea complained that the changes enabled the government to just give out information on matters that suited it.
The dismantling of the old press club system was hailed by civil society groups that campaign for media reform. These groups are sometimes aggressive, as for example during the campaign to boycott the conservative daily Chosun Ilbo. These groups supported President Roh’s "war" against the conservative newspapers Chosun Ilbo, Dong-a Ilbo and JoongAng Ilbo, which control 70 per cent of the market.
Press freedom violations were very rare, although 56 per cent of journalists surveyed by the Korean Journalists’ Club claimed that they were subjected to political pressure and 75.5 per cent said they received pressure from the business community.
Online newspapers continued to establish themselves as an alternative to the conservative print media, which are mostly owned by political or business figures. The Internet has become the leading medium for the younger generation to get news and views that are different from those put out by the traditional media. Among the many online newspapers, OhmyNews deserves mention. Started up in February 2000, it openly supported Roh’s presidential campaign and reportedly gets nearly 15 million visits a day. Its founder attributes its success to a national network of "citizen journalists."
A journalist imprisoned
Ko Young-sung, a former reporter with MBC TV in Tae-jon (south of Seoul), was taken into custody on 20 June 2003 after being sentenced to eight months in prison for defamation. He had been tried along with three colleagues, Kang Duk-won, Kim Ji-hoon and Suh Sang-il, who got suspended prison sentences. They were convicted of defamation and "obstructing the work of a lawyer" for reporting a major corruption scandal involving a Tae-jon lawyer in January 1999. Young was imprisoned because he had a record stemming from an earlier corruption case. He was released on bail on 27 August.
Harassment and obstruction
The pro-government opposition accused the government of taking control of the state-owned Korean Broadcasting System (KBS) in March 2003 after Seo Dung-ku, a political adviser to the President Roh during the election campaign, was appointed to head the network. Seo resigned after most of KBS’s journalists questioned his impartiality.
President Roh told the national assembly on 2 April he wanted to redefine relations between the government and media. He said he had no confidence in press groups that were "manipulated" and "too powerful," and that he planned to put a stop to "incorrect" coverage of his government’s activities. He called on the owners of the three main conservative newspapers on 8 April not to meddle in editorial decisions. Roh’s supporters regularly accused the conservative press of trying to "destabilise" the government. While claiming to support press independence, Roh warned the media: "If you think you can tame the government, please, stop dreaming."
The prosecutor of the western district of Cheongju ordered a search of the privately-owned TV station SBS on 5 August. Investigators asked a senior staff representative to surrender videos and give them access to the server that hosts the station’s website. But some 40 employees physically prevented them from carrying out their search and from confiscating a politically embarrassing video recording which, after it was broadcast the previous week, caused President Roh’s private secretary to resign.
A spokesman for the prosecutor’s office accused the station’s staff of obstructing justice, but he said the judicial authorities would try to persuade the station to surrender the videotapes without using coercion. But the head of news at SBS, Ha Geum-Yeou, said the station’s employees had acted as individuals with the sole aim of protecting the confidentiality of their sources. The embarrassing footage - recorded by a hidden camera - showed the president’s private secretary dining and drinking with a hotel and night-club owner known for having problems with the judicial authorities, including tax fraud. The same footage also showed other members of the ruling party and former classmates of the president. President Roh accused SBS of fabricating the scandal but further revelations forced him to accept his personal secretary’s resignation.
President Roh brought a libel suit on 13 August, demanding 3 billion won (more than 2 million euros) in damages from an opposition parliamentarian and four of the country’s most important dailies, Chosum Ilbo, Dong-a Ilbo, JoongAng Ilbo and Hankook Ilbo, which printed the parliamentarian’s claims that Roh and his elder brother had profited from the sale of public land. The president accused the newspapers of publishing the allegations without checking first. A Dong-a Ilbo spokesman insisted the newspaper just reported the facts and said the truth would come out at the trial. After many protests Roh withdrew his lawsuit but warned that he would sue the dailies again at the end of his term.
Riot police on 22 August prevented around 20 human rights activists at Cholwon, near the North Korean border, from releasing 200 balloons that were to have dropped more than 600 radio sets over North Korea. A German doctor, Norbert Vollertsen, was roughed up by the police and was hospitalised with a foot injury and bruising. He was trying to fill the balloons with helium despite the police ban. The project was the initiative of Korean-born US pastor Douglas Shin and Vollertsen, who was deported from North Korea in 2001 for criticising the human rights situation there.
Backed by Reporters Without Borders, the project aimed to give hundreds of people in the north a chance to pick up Korean-language broadcasts by foreign stations, including Radio Free Asia, on the solar-powered sets. All radio and TV sets in North Korea are made so they can only receive the state-controlled media. The project’s organisers said the South Korean foreign ministry had been informed and had not formally objected. But no official request for permission was made. The law allows the authorities to ban demonstrations if the organisers have a criminal record or if the site of the protest is considered unsuitable.