Attacks on the Press 2003: South Korea

After coming to power in February pledging to combat widespread corruption, President Roh Moo Hyun ended 2003 in disgrace, with several of his top aides under investigation for illegal campaign finance activities. Throughout 2003, the liberal president fought a heated battle with the largely conservative mainstream press, while the development of Internet news sites presented a significant challenge to traditional media outlets.

An already contentious relationship between Roh and the mainstream media that developed during the campaign season deteriorated as soon as he was sworn in as president. Much of the press had backed his opponent in the election, Lee Hoi Chang of the conservative Grand National Party (GNP), and opposed Roh’s liberal policies, which include support for economic and diplomatic engagement with North Korea. Roh returned the favor by verbally lashing out at his critics in the media.

Roh took several steps aimed at revamping the media that were met with mixed reactions from local journalists. A former human rights lawyer, Roh put a high priority on reforming the newspaper industry, which he has called “a dangerous power in need of public scrutiny and verification.” One of his first actions upon assuming office was to close the country’s press clubs, which had granted only the major mainstream media outlets access to government ministries, and to initiate daily government briefings for all media. The reforms also mandated that government officials get permission from their supervisors before granting interviews to the press. Foreign media are now required to buy press passes before covering government briefings at Blue House, the presidential office.

While smaller media outlets that had been excluded under the previous system welcomed the changes, some mainstream journalists protested that the new “permission” requirement limited their access to officials. Nevertheless, some observers pointed out that, in practice, little had changed in the relationships between journalists and government officials, some of whom were known to offer lavish gifts or cash in return for positive press coverage.

While South Korea participated in negotiations aimed at diffusing mounting tensions between North Korea and the United States over Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities, the government allowed South Korean journalists to cover some special cross-border events from North Korea and to file pool reports. Foreign journalists, however, were not granted the same access.

Roh took his fight against the media one step further in August, when he filed civil defamation charges against the country’s top four newspapers–Chosun Ilbo, Dong-A Ilbo, JoongAng Ilbo, and Hankook Ilbo–after they reported that Roh had made questionable real estate investments, accusations that he denies. In the lawsuit, Roh accused the papers of “comprehensive, persistent, and massive defamation of my character that, not as president but as a human being, caused me psychological agony hard to express in words,” according to press reports. In doing so, Roh became the first South Korean president ever to file a lawsuit against the press.

Also in August, a senior aide of Roh’s resigned after footage of him accepting food and drinks from a businessman at a nightclub was broadcast on SBS-TV. The footage allegedly proved that the aide had violated government ethics rules. Roh’s supporters said the footage, which had been filmed secretly, appeared to be premeditated and claimed that the incident was a setup. SBS-TV producers said the tape had been delivered anonymously, and that they did not know who filmed it.

The entrenched media faced another challenge in 2003 with the rise of Internet news sites, especially, a free online news service. The site was founded by Oh Yeon Ho, a veteran reporter for the underground press during the military dictatorship in the 1980s. He launched as an alternative to the conservative press, which he felt monopolized the country’s media. South Korea has one of the highest Internet penetration rates in the world, and 70 percent of households have broadband access. targeted this market with a unique format that enlists citizens to contribute news stories, which are then fact-checked and edited by a small staff of journalists. In 2003, about 26,000 people were registered contributors to the site.

Launched in 2000, the Web site gained popularity during Roh’s election in 2002, when it registered 20 million hits a day. Some observers, including Oh, partially attributed Roh’s election victory to the success of and other online news sites, which are popular among the young, pro-reform citizens who overwhelmingly voted for Roh. “In the past, the conservative papers in Korea could–and did–lead public opinion…. In our battle between the conservative media and the netizens of Korea, the netizens won,” Oh told the BBC in March 2003.

Roh himself has helped boost and other Internet news sites. The press club reforms allowed online news services access to the Blue House for the first time, and soon after his inauguration, Roh chose as the forum for his first presidential interview.

Despite the shifting dynamics of the Korean press in Roh’s favor, he was unable to avoid widespread public discontent with his handling of a number of issues, including the economy, negotiations with North Korea, labor protests, and relations with the United States. In October, Roh planned a public referendum on his presidency, saying, “I reached a situation in which I cannot conduct the presidency. I have no confidence in doing my job under this situation.”

At year’s end, the referendum was delayed amid an escalating scandal in which several of Roh’s former aides were under investigation for accepting illegal campaign donations during the 2002 election. As the scandal broke and three of his former aides were charged, Roh promised that he would resign if it was proven that his party had taken an amount greater than 10 percent of the illegal campaign donations allegedly received by the opposition GNP. GNP candidate Lee has admitted to accepting US$43 million in illegal contributions during the 2002 campaign.