May 7, 2009
Via Ambassador Han Duk-soo
Ambassador of the
50 Massachusetts Ave. NW
Via facsimile 202-342-1597
Dear President Lee:
The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned by your
administration's increasing pressure on the
On May 1, prosecutors told reporters at a Seoul press
conference that the four MBC staffers -- reporters Cho Neung-hee and Song Il-jun
and newsroom writers Kim Eun-hee and Lee Yeon-hee -- were arrested the day
before in connection with a report by the station last year. They were charged
with spreading false rumors that said
On April 13, MBC fired Shin Kyung-min, anchor of its primetime news program "News Desk." South Korean media gave extensive coverage to ensuing protests of the May 1 arrests by staff of your country's four major broadcasting stations. Shin had been the anchor when the mad cow story aired on the channel's investigative show "PD Notebook," and had a reputation for being openly critical of your government.
MBC President Ohm Ki-young denied charges that Shin was fired because of his role in reporting the story or his anti-government positions. Ohm was widely quoted as saying that the firings were carried out to "regain" political balance and credibility and to better compete with the rival 9 p.m. news at the state-run Korean Broadcasting System.
We are concerned because the prosecutions, sackings, and protests come amid a broader set of disputes with the government and the station's management. In 2008 your government said it would accelerate its plan for deregulation of the republic's vibrant media industry. The TV networks resisted the plan, because they were worried about more restrictive media rules after corporate takeovers and cross-ownership by newspaper publishers. Some media analysts say the government is behind the move because only three right-leaning pro-government Korean-language papers are wealthy enough to buy up the stations. Unionized workers at three stations, the state-owned Korean Broadcasting System (KBS), Seoul Broadcasting System, and MBC went on strike in protest.
The situation escalated in March this year, when four journalists at the 24-hour news channel YTN were arrested for "interfering with business." Even though they were quickly released on bail, they are still being prosecuted. They protested the appointment of your former aide Ku Bon-hong to head YTN. About 58 percent of YTN stock is owned by four state-run companies--shares the government wants to sell off to the private sector.
It is not just broadcasters who have been subjected to government restrictions. In early April, the government passed legislation requiring South Korean Internet users to submit their real name and residence registration number before using any major Web site that has more than 100,000 distinct users each day -- a law first proposed by the preceding government of President Roh Moo-hyun. The law allows people to use anonymous names when surfing the Web or posting comments, but must supply their full identity to Internet service providers who then have to turn it over when requested by the government. Journalists and bloggers can no longer write without revealing their identities to authorities.
At a press conference in
Google, which owns YouTube, has managed to avoid the restrictions by not allowing users to upload videos and comments on the Korean-language kr.youtube.com site, while allowing users to still upload material by setting their country preference to other countries, Hankyeoreh reported.
Your government's attempts to control the Internet were
handed another setback on April 20, when a
We are also concerned that a law that criminalizes slander with a jail term not to exceed two years and a 10 million won (US$7,890) fine is still pending in the National Assembly. While slander is a serious charge, it should not be criminalized and should be dealt with in civil courts. In many countries criminal defamation serves to stifle free speech and the open expression of ideas, and is used to silence outspoken critics of those in power.
South Korean journalists continue to tell of us harassment
and threats of prosecution when they travel to
All of these actions are a step backward for