Commentary: South Korea: The Wrong Way to Build a Free Press

Kim's tax probe of three top papers looks like a vendetta, not a crackdown on evasion

By Moon Ihlwan

The administration of South Korean President Kim Dae Jung recently launched tax probes into the nation's newspaper and broadcasting companies. Few Koreans, however, believed the move was part of a general crackdown on tax evasion, as the government insists. It more closely resembled a political vendetta. Newspapers and TV news have been increasingly critical of the President's policies. What better way to stifle the pesky media than by demanding millions of dollars in back taxes and assorted penalties?

Kim's media crackdown is hard to reconcile with his Nobel peace prize and image as a champion of democracy. The controversial tax probe harks back to Korea's more authoritarian past, a time when Kim himself was persecuted for speaking out against the state. Moreover, meddling with the media provides Kim's critics with ammunition as the nation gears up for local and presidential elections next year.

COZY TIES. Then again, it's easy to understand Kim's frustration. South Korea's press remains, by and large, beholden to the very corporate interests that are battling the government's attempts to rein them in. The press barons who own the three leading newspapers--Chosun Ilbo, Joong-Ang Ilbo, and Dong-A Ilbo--were all part of the political establishment before Kim was elected in 1998. From the current administration's perspective--and it's hard to disagree--the three newspapers generally sympathize with the opposition on everything from North Korean policy to economic reform to domestic politics.

The upshot is that the nation's media do not play the objective watchdog role associated with a modern democracy that aspires to become a knowledge-based economy. This is no real surprise. For decades, the Korean media enjoyed cozy ties with the powers that be. As part of their quest for legitimacy, the generals who ran the country from 1961 to 1993 essentially paid off media barons to ensure flattering coverage. One of the perks: immunity from prosecution for tax evasion. In return, media bosses appointed compliant editors who wouldn't run stories that might displease their political masters. So Koreans rarely heard about the state's rampant human-rights abuses or the illegal activities of the chaebol, which, of course, were big advertisers.

As a result, Korean media became less than reliable. To this day, journalists violate traffic laws with impunity, write critical stories without evidence, and trade stock based on inside information. Corporations routinely pay the tabs of reporters who hang out at exclusive golf clubs and hostess bars. And flagrant bias is common. In June, the leading dailies ran stories condemning the government's tax probe but didn't bother to report the International Federation of Journalists' resolution calling for press reforms in Korea.

The problem is, the Kim administration's tax investigation won't make the press more responsible. And it makes Kim seem like a thin-skinned autocrat who would rather go after the media than the chaebol. Taxes levied against Chosun Ilbo, Joong-Ang Ilbo, and Dong-A Ilbo range from $64 million to $67 million apiece. "This is way out of proportion," says Choi Hai Un, chief executive of Newsis, which distributes foreign news. No one contends that the press should be exempt from official audits, but they must take place on a regular basis--not after a paper publishes critical articles.

Kim and his predecessor, Kim Young Sam, have done much to foster a responsible media. They ended state censorship and promoted freedom. Partially as a result of official actions, many journalists have stopped accepting money from government agencies and corporations. But critics say that if Kim truly aims to clean up the industry, he would do well to pass legislation that prevents control of the media from falling into too few hands. The government could also toughen penalties for libel to make reporters more accountable. A clean, vibrant press is a goal that's well worth fighting for--and doing so would help restore President Kim's reputation as Asia's top reformer.

Moon is Seoul bureau chief.

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