Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières) welcomed a legislative reform plan to repeal the National Security Law that should benefit press freedom but urged withdrawal of a draft media law that would endanger free enterprise in the printed press.
Both draft reforms to be put before parliament by the ruling Uri Party would have significant press freedom consequences, it said.
The worldwide press freedom organisation called on the Chairman of the Uri party, Lee Bu Young, to shelve the media reform law. While welcoming the repeal of the National Security Law, the organisation expressed concern about attempts by the majority to use the law to control the printed press sector.
"This law intended to curb the influence of the three major conservative dailies, looks more like ideological revenge that an attempt to regulate the news sector," said Robert Ménard in his letter to Lee Bu Young.
Reporters Without Borders is aware that a monopoly or an oligopoly is not desirable for pluralism of news and information, but South Koreans have a wide range of sources of news on top of the traditional dailies.
The Uri party, which has 152 seats in the 299-seat parliament, on 15 October 2004 put forward four draft laws two of which directly affect press freedom. The party wants to have them adopted before the end of the current parliamentary session in mid-December.
The media reform bill decrees that no newspaper can control more than 30 percent of the market and that the three leading dailies cannot control more than 60 percent. It also limits to 50 percent the space each paper can give to advertising, on the threat of a fine of 20 million-wons (more than 14,000 euros).
All press groups would also have to provide the culture and tourism ministry with full information about their financial situation, circulation and capitalisation.
The three conservative dailies Chosun Ilbo, Dong-a Ilbo and JoongAng Ilbo dominate 70 percent of the daily written press market. Chosun Ilbo alone has more than a 30 percent market share.
The law also obliges press groups to set up a committee to protect readers’ rights allowing them to challenge media if they consider their coverage less than "objective".
The ruling party also wants to establish a single distribution system for the dailies to end fierce competition between the papers for subscribers.
Belligerent statements by top officials accompanied the announcement of the proposed law. Prime Minister Lee Hae-chan said, "I can forgive the military regimes of Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo (former South Korean presidents), but I cannot forgive the betrayals of Chosun Ilbo and Dong-a Ilbo."
One Uri party leader said the law would "help create a sound media market to reflect public opinion". The government of President Roh Moo-hyun earlier attempted to push through a law to reduce the influence of the conservative dailies in February 2002.
Elsewhere the Uri Party is planning to repeal the law on national security that made it a crime to put out news favourable to the communist regime in North Korea. President Roh Moo-hyun proposed that some articles of the law should be put into the criminal code to protect the country from spying on behalf of North Korea.
The last journalist to be jailed under this law was Choi Chin-sop, imprisoned from 1992 to 1995. Extreme-left publications are still censored or harassed for carrying articles considered supportive of the Pyongyang regime.
Reporters Without Borders has previously spoken out against this repressive law that dates from 1948, which under the guise of protecting the country from North Korean ideology allowed journalists to be jailed and media censored.
Amnesty International wrote in its 2004 report that "the National Security Law has often been used arbitrarily against people for exercising the rights to freedom of expression and association." At the end of August 2004, 14 people were in prison under this law.
The opposition Grand National Party said on 27 October that it would refer the draft laws to the Constitutional Court. Some conservative deputies threatened to physically block the adoption of the laws.