For the past few years, George Orwell’s 1984 was more real than it had any right to be in South Korea. During the previous two administrations, the government repressed the masses and turned the political center of Seoul into a hive of corruption. In a shocking development, it was also revealed that media moguls censored anti-government sentiment, a revelation that instigated the single largest media strike in Korean history. Will this strike be enough to restore integrity to the media, or does it need help in the form of a new piece of legislation? The future of the media has never been murkier.
In contrast to their gleaming buildings and progressive slogans, the autonomy of media corporations is frequently undermined in South Korea. For starters, many people remember the media suppression policies employed by former President Chun Doo-hwan’s during the 1980s. The recent media scandal points to the resurgence of the same ailment, but the difference is that this time, broadcasters are taking active measures to reclaim their independence.
Since September 4 this year, Korea’s two largest public broadcasting companies, Korean Broadcasting System (KBS) and Munhwa Broadcasting Cooperation (MBC), have been on a general strike of an unprecedented scale. Assisted by two labor unions, the First Union of MBC and the New Union of KBS, around 3,800 reporters, producers, and staff members have stopped working, demanding the resignation of Kim Jang Kyum and Ko Dae Young, the current presidents of MBC and KBS.
Where It All Began
The causes of the strike can be traced back to 2008, when the whole country was embroiled in a controversy surrounding imported American beef, which was suspected of harboring a deadly virus. The issue was publicized thanks to an episode of PD Notebook at MBC. Although the episode gave rise to numerous social movements and huge nationwide candle vigils, the government pressured MBC into ruthlessly silencing the producers of the program. Eom Ki Young, the President of MBC at the time, was also forced to resign, after which MBC’s board of directors appointed the pro-government Kim Jae Cheol as the new president. This controversial appointment led to two failed strikes in 2010 and 2012, which then resulted in vindictive employee layoffs.
▲ Provided by PD Journal. Broadcasters' general strike
In February this year, Kim Jang Kyum, who attempted to sweep scandals concerning the National Intelligence Service (NIS) and former President Park Geun-hye under the rug, was controversially appointed as the new President of MBC. The incident sparked the PD Notebook producers’ strike, which was eventually joined by most of the employees of MBC and KBS. The impact of the sudden absence of 3,800 workers crippled the two broadcasting companies, with a large number of programs temporarily put on hold. MBC’s radio channel FM4U also temporarily halted all of its radio programs, while trailers and public advertisements were aired in place of TV commercials.
Public Broadcastings, What Are They For?
“Although there have been a few instances of implicit media oppression in the wake of an administration change, such stringent personnel regulations as the ones that are currently found in MBC are unprecedented,” said Professor Dongsub Han (Media and Communication, Hanyang University). A similar example can be seen in the case of Japan’s public broadcasting company, Nippon Hōsō Kyōkai (NHK). Although the corporation was well known for its impartial reports, it came under fire in 2014 for skewing right after Shintaro Abe, the new prime minister at the time, nominated his men to the corporation’s highest ranks.
“The purpose of public broadcasting is to be free from the influences of capital and power. They broadcast only for those in whom sovereignty resides; the nation’s people,” said Han. “However, under the Lee and Park administrations, the freedom of public broadcasting companies was shackled, and the government appropriated them as instruments of propaganda. There were additional signs of public broadcasting being abused by private actors,” he added. According to him, the strike is demanding that the current presidents resign and reporters and Program Directors (PD) who were unreasonably laid off be reinstated.
Understanding the process of appointing presidents of public broadcasting companies under the Broadcasting Act is integral when one observes the current strike. Currently, the board of directors for each company consists of members nominated by the ruling and opposition party. In the case of KBS, the ruling party appoints seven members and the opposition appoints four, whereas in MBC, the ruling party nominates six, and the opposition three. This indicates that the ruling party can exert twice as much influence on the decisions made by the committees as its opposition. The Act also dictates that the candidate for president of MBC and KBS should be approved by both the Korean Communications Commission and the incumbent president, which enables the administration to select its favored candidate.
Will It Be Different?
One hopeful aspect is that the current system might be modified in the near future. After former President Park’s impeachment, her successor President Moon Jae-in initiated policies aimed at “eradicating deep-rooted evils” in society. One of his major plans is to revise the Broadcasting Act to prevent the media and government from getting into bed together. Under the revised Act, the board of directors of both MBC and KBS will consist of seven members appointed by the ruling party and six appointed by the opposition. More importantly, the presidential candidate for MBC and KBS will need the approval of the supermajority, or two thirds of the committee members, providing the opposition party with veto power. Such a structure will likely lead to appointments based on meritocracy, not political agenda.
In addition, compared to the previous strikes in 2010 and 2012, the current strike is distinctive in that employees of the two largest public broadcasting companies simultaneously went on strike. Consequently, the scale has become considerably larger and more people are aware of the issue than before. Furthermore, while the previous movements suffered from the oppressive hand of conservative administrations, the Moon administration has been showing willingness to improve government transparency and accountability. Even though it is still too soon to let their guard down, this time, those on strike have more to look forward to than in previous years.
Most importantly, it is essential for the public to remain conscious of the necessity of public media autonomy, since any government, whether liberal or conservative, can always twist the media to cater to its own tastes and preferences. Public awareness should be the one last bastion that will allow media to function as the watchdog of democracy, instead of becoming the pet dog of politics. In the olden days, the media was referred to as the “fourth power,” or a force independent of the whims of politicians that always reported the truth, no matter what. It is time for the media to regain that title.