While South Korea’s press was ostensibly free from overt pressures, its independence was compromised by complex links between media and various business and political interests. A high-profile tax evasion case involving one of South Korea’s largest daily newspapers, JoongAng Ilbo, underscored the problems of cronyism and corruption that continue to plague the press, but also raised important questions about the state of press freedom under President Kim Dae Jung.
On October 2, JoongAng‘s publisher, Hong Seok Hyun, was arrested on tax evasion charges. Hong is also the largest shareholder of the Bokwang group of companies, and the arrest was the startling climax of a months-long probe into the financial dealings of Bokwang, a former affiliate of the giant Samsung group. On December 14, a Seoul district court released Hong on probation, after giving him a three-year suspended sentence and ordering him to pay 3.8 billion won (about US$3.3 million) in back taxes.
Though JoongAng Ilbo itself was never implicated in the investigation, staff at the newspaper said the government’s prosecution of Hong was an indirect means of retaliating against the paper for its often scathing criticism of the administration.
South Korea’s leaders have a history of using tax investigations to punish their media critics. In this case, Kim–a former political prisoner who enjoys an international reputation as a champion of democracy–vehemently denied that the tax probe had anything to do with JoongAng Ilbo or with press freedom. Interestingly, most journalists in South Korea seemed to agree. A survey released by the Journalists Association of Korea reportedly found that 80 percent of Korean journalists supported Hong’s prosecution. The Bokwang probe came amid a series of investigations into the illegal business practices common among South Korea’s huge conglomerates, known as chaebols.
The main opposition Grand National Party (GNP), however, maintained that Kim was disguising an attack on the opposition press under the mantle of economic reform.
Because most of South Korea’s newspapers are controlled by chaebols, or at least depend heavily on these companies for advertising, any economic overhaul will have repercussions on the press. Charges that Kim was using his power to settle political scores and intimidate the media dominated the political landscape in 1999, and seemed likely to be a prominent feature of the April 2000 parliamentary elections.
But as one Seoul-based foreign correspondent told CPJ, any tussle between media and the government must be seen in context. “This is not an authoritarian government suppressing a feisty press,” he said. “This is one power center versus another.”