Friday, December 6, 2013

Freedom of the Press?

Not long ago, after the assassination of Park Chung-hee, martial law was established and all media was censored. Martial law came to an end in 1981 but censorship of the media continued. Only with the advent of democracy in 1987 was there freedom of the press, which was unanimously cheered. A Peace Weekly columnist, who has worked in media since the Chung-hee assassination, comments on the present condition of the media.

With democratic rule, the direct involvement of the government over the content of media ceased. Newspapers flourished, pages increased, color was introduced, Chinese characters decreased, and morning and evening editions became commonplace.

However, within the mass media and the world of scholars, there were reservations voiced:  "We can't rejoice unconditionally  to the freedom of the press," some were saying.  "We have freed ourselves from the shackles of the government only to be shackled by the world of finance; freed from the fox's den to end up in the lion's den."

The columnist agrees that this is a correct assessment of the situation. We have freedom of the press, but its independent existence is at stake, and the situation is more serious, he  believes, than it was in the 80s. The newspapers in Korea, as in other parts of the world, are dependent on advertising to exist. In addition, there are often promotional articles (puff pieces) published that recommend goods and services, companies, organizations, groups, and so forth that serve the same purpose as paid advertising, but under the guise of journalistic objectivity. A service often provided to a a paper's most frequent advertisers.  

Though regulations require that  advertising  has to be specified as such, puff articles written by a journalist promoting some product with his name attached is generally overlooked. This is the way it began, but then sections were added to newspapers, and the journalists fought to keep their names from being reported.  And so journalists, unwittingly, became  involved in the world of business. This is against the code of newspaper journalism, which mandates accurate, objective, and fair reporting. Unacknowledged advertising that masquerades as journalism goes against the freedom, responsibility and independence of the press. It also goes against, says the columnist, the teaching of  Catholicism that encourages everyone to contribute to the common good. But so engrained is the practice, the columnist laments, that there appears to be little that can be done to end it.

In the days of censorship, freedom was more obviously suppressed. Today, freedom of the press is being challenged with more subtlety, as newspapers have to bow before the advertisers  in order to exist. The power and influence on the press in Korea resides in the hands of 10 large commercial companies. We all witnessed, said the columnist, what  happened when one of the big companies stopped advertising in one of the newspapers: it was  a mortal blow for the paper.

The article ends with a desire to have the government do something similar to what is done in Europe, where the mass media, in order to free itself somewhat from its dependence on advertisers, gets a subsidy from the government to help defray operating expenses. Until the time comes when the press can be said to be truly free of outside influences, so that it can keep the news free, objective and fair, readers will have to be  more critical of what they see and read in the mass media.

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