Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on South Korea’s government to guarantee editorial independence in the public media after unions at the two biggest public TV networks launched an indefinite strike yesterday to demand an end to political meddling and harassment of journalists.
The first major strike in South Korea’s public broadcast media since 2012 began when around 2,000 employees at Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) stopped work. They were followed a few hours later by 1,800 employees at the Korean Broadcasting System (KBS).
The unions are demanding the resignation of the presidents and boards of governors of the networks, an end to appointments of managers from outside the networks, and an end to harassment of journalists.
Disputes between journalists and management in South Korea’s public broadcast media are not new. The sector is the constant target of political meddling, facilitated by regulations that give the government the upper hand in the appointment of senior management.
The result has been disastrous. The world’s 11th biggest economy, South Korea has gone from being ranked 31st in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index in 2006 to being ranked 63rd this year.
“It is time to end a terrible decade of harassment of journalists,” said Cédric Alviani, the head of RSF’s East Asia bureau. “The South Korean authorities must respond without delay to the legitimate demands of journalists to be able to work without harassment, so that editorial independence in the public media can be guaranteed.”
Decade of meddling and harassment
After his election in 2008, President Lee Myung-bak systematically appointed close supporters to key positions in MBC and KBS, the satellite TV channels Sky Life and Yonhap Television News (YTN), the Korea Broadcasting Advertising Corporation and Arirang TV, an English-language channel. And journalists were forced to act as Lee’s PR representatives.
His example was followed by President Park Geun-hye, who was elected in 2012 and was removed in 2016. She used her influence over the media to downplay the government’s responsibility in the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster, and its toll of 304 dead, and to denigrate the corruption allegations that ultimately led to her removal.
The repeated government meddling created an ugly environment in the public media, with intimidation of journalists, dismissals and strikes.
Targeting investigative reporting
Managers appointed from outside the networks focused above all on making life difficult for investigative programmes such as PD Notebook, 2580 and News Desk, which have become symbols of the struggle against government meddling in the broadcast media.
PD Notebook set things off in 2008 by broadcasting an exposé about the government’s failure to control US beef imports at the height of the mad cow disease panic. The programme helped to trigger major anti-government protests.
The journalists and producers involved were disciplined. Four of them were even arrested and prosecuted for defamation, until finally acquitted by the supreme court in 2011.
Journalists throughout the public broadcast media had to take action to ensure that investigative stories critical of the government were not canned. They included one about a controversial river management project and one about intelligence agency meddling in the presidential election campaign.
MBC’s management recently changed tactics with PD Notebook, steering it towards crime and human interest stories rather than incisive political reporting. It was an effective way to gag its producers without being exposed to the criticism that would have resulted from the programme’s removal.
Spyware and blacklists
In its battles with journalists, MBC’s management has used a wide range of methods including threats to shut down investigations, terminating programmes, disciplinary dismissals and forced retirements (some of which have subsequently been overturned in the courts).
To neutralize strikers, it has even resorted to illegal methods including clandestine recordings, spyware and blacklisting. MBC President Kim Jang-kyeom is currently the target of a judicial investigation on suspicion of grave violations of labour rights.
The strikers are pinning a great deal of hope on President Moon Jae-in, a human rights lawyer who was elected to replace Park in June. When an RSF delegation visited South Korea in July, his transition team pledged to ensure that South Korea would be back in 30th position in the RSF World Press Freedom Index by the end of his term.