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Under a facade of profitability, free press is blighted by interference, incompetence and corruption
Story by John Power / Illustrations by Rob Green and Sergio Mateos / Additional reporting by Moon Soo-hyun
One month after the Sewol ferry sank and killed more than 300 people, Korea’s second-largest newspaper ran a full-page apology. In it, the JoongAng Ilbo sought forgiveness for its reporting on the disaster, which had been riddled with misinformation and salacious speculation.
“Our incorrect reports have caused confusion and pain to readers and the families of the ferry victims. We feel ashamed and apologize for that,” the statement read, as cited in the Wall Street Journal.
The apology was just one of many from media outlets that parroted incorrect government reports of the death toll, excluded voices critical of the official response to the sinking and even fabricated reports from the scene. As it did for many other facets of Korean society, the disaster exposed a rot at the heart of the news media.
Sewol exposed a low point in Korean journalism, but it was no exception either. Media watchers and journalists describe fundamental, longstanding problems facing the industry. They paint a picture of a landscape blighted by government and corporate interference, corruption, incompetence and apathy.
“If you take a look at the appearance of the Korean media terrain, it’s quite good,” says Choi Kyung-young, a veteran journalist who left a long career at the Korean Broadcasting System last year to join Newstapa, an investigative journalism outlet launched in 2012. “They will say it is quite advanced. But if you take a deep look inside … the culture of the Korean media’s organization, it is almost like the 19th or early 20th century — still very authoritarian.”
On the surface, Korea’s media appears to be thriving, and even an example to a region where liberal democracy is the exception rather than the norm. The country’s peaceful transition to democracy in the late ‘80s promised journalists a newfound freedom to report without fear or favor. Local-language newspapers still boast circulations that would be the envy of media companies in most developed countries: Chosun Ilbo, the country’s largest daily, runs about as many print editions as the combined print and digital circulation of the New York Times, in a far smaller market. The local media continues to be among the freest in Asia, according to both Reporters Without Borders and Freedom House.
But compared to other democratic countries, the laws protecting freedom of expression are fickle. Korea’s rankings on Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders’ yearly press freedom indexes are sliding, with the latter dropping seven notches to No. 57 this year. Many journalists complain of pervasive government and corporate pressure. Others routinely ignore basic journalistic principles, often in apparent ignorance of why they matter at all.
Inside the ëchulib cheoí: Join the club
Much of Korea’s mainstream media culture is built on an intricate web of connections between the outlets, the government and big companies from the top down. Because of a combination of unique historical and cultural factors, producing news in this environment boils down to access to the elites and how to get it.
The Korean media’s closest cousin is Japan. While newspapers first emerged in the late 19th century, many of the features of the modern Korean press came into being in the 1920s during Japan’s colonial rule, meaning they were largely modeled after the Japanese newspaper system. This structure continued even after the U.S. occupation of Korea, says Lee Jae-gyeong, a journalism professor at Ewha Womans University.
One feature borne of this history overwhelmingly shapes how journalism is produced to this day: a culture of journalist beats, or “chulib cheo,” revolving around exclusive press clubs.
Each government ministry and chaebol typically has its own press club that serves as its sole official source of information. Only members, typically journalists from the most powerful media, get access inside. These exclusive groups of journalists decide which other media organizations can join — and which can be kicked out. As with the “kisha” clubs of Japan, the South Korean equivalents often exclude foreign or minor media and freelance journalists.
As a cub reporter with Gyeonggi Province-based TV network OBS, Heo Eun-sun was tasked with winning access to the Ministry of Education for her employer.
“When we want to get the ability to get a desk in the press room, we should prove we are a ‘safe’ news company,” she says. In practice, this meant submitting an uncontroversial news report for daily review as well as extensive socializing with the members of the press club.
To prove she was a “good girl” not out to challenge the established order, Heo had to demurely accept invitations to eat and drink with her seniors.
“At that time, I wanted to quit because I didn’t know if I was a journalist or a businesswoman,” she says.
Once inside the club, reporters spend much of their time socializing with government officials or company executives related to their beat. Both Heo and Newstapa’s Choi believe these relationships often become too close for journalists to maintain the necessary skepticism.
“They eat together, they drink together, they become very friendly, and they listen to stories from their beat, only from their beat,” says Choi. “They never prove their stories. They never investigate.”
Many journalists, Heo and Choi say, do little more than rewrite the press releases fed to them.
“Journalists (here) choose one of these two options,” says Heo. “Option one, be just as a salaried worker: Just produce one to three articles per day based on some press release documents distributed by the chulib cheo. Two, try to be a real journalist: Even though it is hard for journalists who have a chulib cheo to investigate labor issues deeply every day, make an effort to listen to people outside of the chulib cheo. But, sadly, in my view, there are more journalists who choose the first option in Korea.”
Such outside pressures on the media reach past the reporter network into management itself. On the corporate side, blackmailing conglomerates to leverage ad revenue is a newspaper industry norm.
Speaking on condition of anonymity out of fear of losing her job, one journalist at a financial newspaper describes how her editors blackmail chaebol executives to take out ads by threatening them with negative stories.
“They ask for advertisements and if that company doesn’t give the money, usually the reporter has to write something bad about the company,” she says, adding that it is common practice at most newspapers to approach firms in this way at certain times of the year.
Similarly, she says her newspaper regularly carries glowing coverage of chaebol in exchange for money. Unlike clearly labeled “advertorials” in Western newspapers, such quid-pro-quo articles give the reader no indication of the financial exchange.
Other pressure takes on a more personal flavor. Once, she says, an editor altered her story to put a negative spin on a visit by Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon to the site of a major development project. The edited article portrayed the mayor’s visit as motivated by concern over his image rather than genuine interest in safety fears surrounding the project. The reason? The newspaper chairman disliked Park.
Though conscious of the compromising nature of her work, she is resigned to the reality of her profession.
“I think I have gotten used to it now. It’s not good, but it’s how the newspaper companies work here,” she says.
Anyone who opens a Korean newspaper or tunes in to the TV news is likely to be confronted with an abundance of anonymous sources.
Information from unnamed government officials routinely forms the basis of articles, as was the case with reports during the recent Asian Games that the South Korean government intended to pay the cost of North Korea’s participation in the sporting event.
Ordinary citizens, too, are regularly identified with nothing more than “Lee” or “Kim” when speaking about their experiences or an issue of public concern.
“This is because of … the environment that requires each reporter to write so many articles,” says Cho Soong-ho, a diplomacy and North Korean affairs reporter with Dong-A Ilbo, one of the country’s largest newspapers.
“There is no time to meet multiple sources for double- and triple-checking. Most journalists try to double-check, at least, but there isn’t always time for even that. In that case, even if only one source confirmed something, if that source is reliable, reporters would often cite the source anonymously and go ahead and write the article.”
The most prestigious names in news worldwide, such as the Associated Press and Reuters, strongly discourage the use of anonymous sources except in exceptional circumstances. Including a source’s name holds both the interviewee and journalist to account, making it much more difficult for either to lie or pursue a hidden agenda.
Korean media outlets, by contrast, often appear indiscriminate in withholding the identities of their sources.
Even convicted criminals are routinely not named in the media, in what is often an example of overcompensating for the dearth of privacy and human rights in past dictatorships, according to professor Lee.
Reports also often fail to identify businesses or organizations that form the basis of the story — even when they are implicated in unethical or criminal behavior.
In the wake of the Sewol disaster, the Joongang Ilbo reported on lax safety standards at businesses including a Seoul night club. Despite claiming the club was putting patrons’ lives at risk by failing to provide sufficient fire exits, the article declined to name the venue. Similarly, a rash of articles in August about a bar that briefly banned Africans over Ebola fears declined to identify the venue, JR Pub in Itaewon.
“Every time I would write an article, when I quoted someone, I referred to them by their name, but some colleagues and superiors thought this was not a good idea,” says Heo, who worked as a reporter for SisaIN magazine after leaving OBS. “I disagreed with that.”
In addition to strict defamation laws, advertising pressures fuel this endemic neutering of reporting, Lee suggests.
“Korea is a very small country. If you name a person or a branch of office, then you could immediately identify what kind of company (or) government branch is related to the issue,” Lee says. “So there is a little more caution on the part of the press and it has to do with the commercial pressure, the advertising situation. There used to be lots of deals between major corporations and the news media on how much identity is expressed in a story.”
Newsroom boot camp
Some critics say that journalists’ ill-founded ethics go back to their lack of relevant training and education.
Just as for many positions in Korean society, the path to a job in a local newsroom is unforgivingly competitive. Last year, some 2,000 people applied for 81 positions at 11 media companies, according to data from the Journalists Association of Korea, cited in The Korea Herald. Would-be journalists typically have to pass a five-stage recruitment process, culminating in several sleepless weeks on the police beat and a final interview.
But before that, an exam — itself restricted to applicants with the best resumes and personal essays — forms a key part of the selection process.
Along with essay writing skills, the exam will test an applicant’s grasp of “sisasangsik,” translated as “current affairs” but more accurately described as an extremely broad conception of general knowledge. Textbooks on the subject stretch to hundreds of pages of definitions and descriptions. Topics include everything from gerrymandering, the Engel coefficient and stagflation, to historical figures such as Oliver Cromwell and Julius Caesar.
Reliance on this entrance exam — and being devoted to preparing for it — means that many budding reporters have little or no background in actual reporting in the initial recruitment stages.
“The end result is people who are smart but ill-prepared, with few professional ethics,” says Ewha professor Lee, adding that other relatively arbitrary criteria such as English scores are used to sort potential journalists. “That’s how we have been maintaining the press system for almost the last 100 years.”
Cho, the Dong-A Ilbo reporter, recalls the recruitment and training process as being of little value.
“This is because they’re focused on developing the audacity to be able to carry out instructions regardless of how unfavorable the situation is, rather than on cultivating professionals specializing in a certain field,” says Cho.
While there is no dedicated journalism school in the country, dozens of universities offer media-related degree programs. But even there, theory and rote memorization are often placed above practical education, says Lee.
“Korean journalism education is not really developed at all,” says Lee, adding that most schools mix theoretical courses rather than teach writing or reporting.
Song Ji-min, a journalism major at the same university, says her coursework has included worthwhile practical assignments. Yet she laments the overemphasis on memorizing terms and facts that makes up a large part of her education. It is an approach that, she says, leaves students poorly equipped.
“They have no time to think about what is a reporter, who is a reporter, what is the attitude for a good reporter,” she says.
Controlling the airwaves
Choi Kyung-young joined KBS in 1995, working his way to the status of a high-profile investigative reporter at the country’s largest broadcaster over a decade. In 2005, he was part of a team that uncovered massive tax evasion by a raft of public figures including judges and lawmakers. The story sparked the first resignation of a Supreme Court justice in Korean history and saw Choi and his colleagues shortlisted as finalists for the Investigative Reporters and Editors Awards held in the United States.
But Choi’s position at the peak of investigative journalism wasn’t to last. In August 2008, he and fellow journalists protested former President Lee Myung-bak’s appointment of Lee Byung-soon as KBS president. They saw the move, along with the earlier removal of former chief Jung Yun-joo for alleged mismanagement, as an attempt to influence output at the broadcaster.
Before long, Choi was pulled out of investigation and transferred to the sports desk, a reassignment he considers a demotion.
Three other journalists and producers at the broadcaster lost their jobs after protesting the appointment. Choi is convinced that he, too, was targeted for his opposition to the conservative former president’s choice of chief. “My investigative team was literally disintegrated, disappeared,” says Choi.
Frustrated, Choi took a career break in 2009 to study in the U.S. for a master’s degree in journalism. After returning to find the atmosphere at KBS little changed under yet another CEO, Choi left the broadcaster for good in 2013.
Accusations of political interference at Korea’s broadcast networks have been relentless in recent years. In 2012, journalists at KBS, MBC and YTN, as well as wire service Yonhap News Agency, went on strike to protest management appointments and the quashing of stories critical of the government. The KBS president at the time, Kim In-kyu, had been a media adviser on the campaign of former President Lee. MBC chief Kim Jae-chul, meanwhile, was also known as a close associate of the president.
KBS journalists went on strike again this May, accusing yet another KBS chief, Gil Hwan-young, of taking orders from the Blue House at that point occupied by incumbent President Park Geun-hye. The protests came after news chief Kim Si-gon claimed that Gil had attempted to control Sewol coverage at the behest of the presidential office. Just a week prior, junior reporters at the broadcaster had released a statement claiming coverage had been manipulated to give a favorable impression of the government.
Allegations of state meddling seem endless, in part, because of how broadcasting is set up in Korea. At KBS, the chief executive is appointed directly by the president upon the recommendation of the company board. At MBC, the Foundation for Broadcast Culture, the largest shareholder, chooses the chief executive. But the board of the FBC is appointed by the Korea Communications Commission, whose makeup is stacked in favor of the government.
“The conservative government so far has been very, I must say, shameless in appointing people very close to the presidential influences as the CEOs or as the executives of KBS and MBC,” says Park Kyung-shin, a law professor at Korea University and former member of the Korea Communications Standards Commission, a body under the KCC that regulates broadcast media and Internet content.
Not only does the government exercise strong influence over management, it decides who gets on the air in the first place. Park says the government tightly controls news programming by requiring a special license for current affairs. Among countless cable and free-to-air channels, only 10 are allowed to broadcast news.
“What other liberal democratic countries regulate, by licensing, those who want to do broadcast news?” he says, noting that any licenses are freely given out, especially as there is no scarcity of bandwidth with the advent of cable.
More so than for other media, television in Korea has been heavily regulated from the start, University of Sydney Korean Studies professor Kwak Ki-sung writes in his book “Media and Democratic Transition in South Korea” (2012).
KBS, originally the Kyeongseong Broadcasting Commission, was established in 1961, shortly after former President Park Chung-hee came to power in a military coup. The then-Ministry of Information required the station, along with the first two commercial stations established later during the decade, to submit regular reports on its programming and finances.
The Basic Press Law, enacted in 1980 under the Chun Doo-hwan administration, established a long list of reporting “guidelines” that, among other things, forbade criticism of the government, support for North Korea and attempts to “confuse” the national economic order.
Such naked censorship is no longer confided in law. In its place, the KCSC exercises wide discretion to censure reporting deemed objectionable through warnings, fines or suspension of broadcasting licenses. Like many other Korean institutions, it is predisposed to following the government line: The president and the ruling party each nominate three of its nine members.
One of many broadcasts to fall foul of the commission this year was a KBS report on a verdict that the prosecution framed a North Korean defector as a spy for Pyongyang. The broadcaster was slapped with a warning, the second-highest sanction, for the report.
“That exposé was severely sanctioned by the KCSC for broadcasting something that may affect the prosecutorial ability to reverse the decision in the higher court,” says Park. “All the program did was report on why the prosecutors lost in court in the first place.”
He says that the commission only takes action against reports that clash with the government’s agenda. Another recently sanctioned report, broadcast on cable news channel JTBC, featured a professor critical of the Justice Ministry’s speedy moves to ban the far-left Unified Progressive Party after it was accused of plotting against the state.
The strong hand of government may also be encouraged by the political aspirations of some media people themselves. Heo says that one of her former bosses at OBS later ran as a National Assembly candidate for the ruling Saenuri Party in Incheon.
“Many politics section editors and deputy editors, society section editors and deputy editors, bureau chiefs and presidents of broadcasters have a dream of being a politician in the near future,” she says.
Freedom of expression
Like democracies everywhere, South Korea promises its people freedom of expression.
“All citizens shall enjoy freedom of speech and the press, and freedom of assembly and association,” reads Article 21 of the Constitution of the Republic of Korea.
But in reality, the right to speak without sanction is weakly upheld in one of Asia’s freest countries, according to Shin Pyeong, a law professor at Kyungpook National University in Daegu.
“Freedom of speech cannot be regulated as a rule in the U.S., whereas it can be controlled for public purposes in Korea. The difference in perceiving freedom of speech (in Korea) eventually led to considerable regulation of the freedom,” Shin said.
The constitution itself qualifies its own provisions on free expression: Neither speech nor the press, it says, should “violate the honor or rights of other persons” or “undermine public morals or social ethics.”
This article, which predates the 1987 amendment that ushered in the democratic era, has at times been controversial. One local civic group, Citizens’ Action Network, has called for its revision or removal.
In effect, praising North Korea is a crime. So is lots of other speech that can be prosecuted as defamation, including statements about the government.
“In Korea, people can be punished for expression even if what they said is true,” says Shin.
Unlike in the U.S., where truth is typically an absolute defense, Korean law allows for the prosecution of truthful speech if it is not “solely in the public interest.” The law also carries the threat of up to seven years’ imprisonment, whereas in other jurisdictions like the U.K., defamation is a civil matter.
Especially significant for journalists, there is relatively little protection of speech about public figures. In the U.S., public figures rarely sue and almost never win. In South Korea, it is unremarkable for even the president to file a defamation suit.
Since the birth of Korean democracy, almost every presidential administration, liberal and conservative alike, has taken journalists to court over their reporting. The exception, the administration of Roh Tae-woo, oversaw the prosecution’s arrest of three dozen KBS reporters in 1990 for an illegal strike.
In August, a number of local civic groups sued a Japanese foreign correspondent for supposedly defaming President Park in an article on rumors about her whereabouts on the day of the Sewol accident. While the law allows third parties to file a suit on someone’s behalf, Park could choose to halt the prosecution as the subject of the alleged defamation. Tatsuya Kato, a correspondent with the Sankei Shimbun, a newspaper generally disliked in South Korea for its conservative and nationalistic leanings, was indicted in October and faces up to seven years in prison.
Simply translating the offending article, meanwhile, has put one local online news outlet in the authorities’ sights. In September, prosecutors raided the home of a NewsPro reporter to locate a translator who transcribed the original article into Korean.
“It is very unfortunate because the freedom of speech and expression is at the very foundation of democracy,” says Og Lim, a staff member at NewsPro.
“We believe that the South Korean government is trying, through the prosecution, to scare and silence only us, a voice against the current administration. Especially given the fact that this happened immediately after President Park Geun-hye lashed out in the cabinet meeting against ‘offensive remarks about the president that were going too far.’ They may be afraid of South Koreans finding out through our translations how President Park and her administration are viewed and criticized by foreign media.”
Lim also claimed that the prosecution lied about how it knew the location of the reporter’s house, saying it had followed the IP address of the article when it had in fact been posted in the U.S.
Meanwhile, the investigated reporter’s wife, who had been in the house at the time of the raid, does not believe the document presented to her by prosecutors was a genuine warrant, according to Lim.
No comprehensive statistics have been collected on the number of defamation suits taken against journalists. However, 3,223 people overall were convicted of criminal defamation last year. Meanwhile, the Press Arbitration Commission, a mediation body that can order outlets to pay compensation and issue retractions, handled almost 2,500 cases in 2013, the vast majority of which involved alleged defamation. Cases that do not see a settlement, which accounted for some 12 percent last year according to a sample of the data, are likely to go to court.
Heo Eun-sun says that her last workplace, SisaIN magazine, was threatened with legal action “almost every week.” Heo herself has been investigated twice for defamation, including once for an article alleging that former Saenuri Party mayoral candidate for Seoul, Na Kyung-won, spent exorbitant amounts on skin care. Luckily for Heo, a drawn-out investigation eventually came down in her favor.
“First the police and, then, prosecutors investigated … said that we didn’t do anything wrong,” she says.
Real-life consequences of stifled speech
Such a repressive climate can have tragic real-world consequences, notes Korea University’s Park. Three months before Sewol sank, a former employee of Chonghaejin, the ferry’s operator, reported the overloading of the ship to the ombudsman under the presidential office but was ignored.
Because even truthful statements can be considered defamatory, Park says, whistle-blowers are strongly dissuaded from coming forward.
“If the environment was favorable for whistle-blowing or raising issues or reporting facts, I think he (the ferry employee) would have just put it on the Internet instead of going to ombudsman services to talk about the persistent overloading problem.”
The bungled response to the sinking may also have been exacerbated by tepid reporting in a climate hostile to free speech, Park says. He notes that on the day of the sinking, one survivor told both KBS and MBC in interviews that the Coast Guard had done little to rescue the passengers of the ferry. Neither station, however, aired his remarks.
“What’s really unfortunate was that he gave the interview on the day of the sinking, at 4 p.m. And the broadcast media could have just reported it right there, because they were covering it 24 hours a day already, and had that gone out at that time … the subsequent rescue efforts from that point on could have been wildly different, pushed by public opinion.”
Search for solutions
So is there any hope for Korea’s media to reform? Park puts priority on scrapping criminal defamation and the current licensing regime for broadcasters. For Choi, the culture of exclusive press clubs is the “fundamental” problem. Above all, pundits agree on one common remedy: the public.
There is wide agreement that citizens, as media consumers, bear heavy responsibility for the quality of their media. Part of the problem, critics say, is they are not living up to this responsibility.
“I think journalists should keep their eyes on the government and big companies and other things, but at the same time, readers should keep an eye on the Korean media,” says Heo.
She says Korean journalists on the whole have failed to demonstrate the importance of their profession. As a result, the public doesn’t fully appreciate the importance of high-quality media.
“If a good article has a good influence on Korean society, maybe Korean readers can realize good articles are important. And good articles should be published, but (readers) have no experience. They don’t realize why good articles are important.”
Ewha professor Lee similarly describes the public’s understanding and expectations of journalism as extremely low. Greater discussion about why journalism matters is crucial to developing better media, he says.
“We need to study more, we need to talk more about freedom of the press, quality of journalism and so on, so that we have a higher level of expectations that can translate into some kind of public pressure on the media institutions to perform better.”
Check out Rob Green’s art at http://instagram.com/robgreenart.