Aiming for a Free and Responsible Press in South Korea

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South Korea ranked 42 on the 2020 World Press Freedom Index conducted by Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF), announced on April 21 this year. South Korea, once again, maintained a top position in the Asia-Pacific region for press freedom. This is a positive mark on an otherwise drab situation looking across Asia as the press freedom has been steadily on the decline for the past decade, with North Korea at the very last place at 180th and China at 177th with Japan falling to 66th from its previous rank as the 30th.

In the midst of a broad decline of press freedom in the Asia-Pacific region, Korea did remarkably well in its feat against the five factors known to endanger freedom of press: geopolitical crisis with populism or authoritarian regimes controlling the media, technological crisis with irresponsible reporting and false news eroding the foundation of journalism, democratic crisis on the back of polarization and oppressive policies, trust crisis with the general public’s confidence in the media deteriorating and economic crisis when the quality of journalism provided to the public is compromised due to financial undercurrents.

According to RSF, “The election of Moon Jae-in, a human rights activist and former political prisoner, as president has been a breath of fresh air after a bad decade in which South Korea fell more than 30 places in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index.”

Looking at the press freedom index for South Korea for the past two decades with simultaneous change in regimes from 2005 with the progressive President Roh Moo-hyun ranking 34th and 1st in Asia to 2010 with the conservative party President Lee Myung-bak at 42nd (gritting its way up from 69th place in 2009) to the conservative party President Park Geun-hye in 2015 at 60th place before seeing a relatively higher ranking in 2020 at 42nd place for the progressive President Moon Jae-in.

However, Cedric Alviani of RSF said, “We see a worsening trend of harassment on the journalists in Korea. Countries must make concerted effort to ensure that there is no legislative, physical or online harassment preventing journalists from doing their professional duties.”

It is notable to see Korea ranked higher in terms of freedom of opinion and expression, which may signal a gradual transformation of the country becoming a truly democratic society open to debate, discussion, criticism and dissent. It is often said that a free press is a symbol of a free people, but in Korea, a free press may not necessarily mean a responsible press committing itself to self-regulation which provides a mechanism for dealing with the concerns of members of the public and the maintenance of the ethical standards and journalistic professionalism of the press.

On this front, according to Reuters Institute & University of Oxford’s Digital News Report 2020, South Korea ranked 40th place out of 40 in terms of public’s trust in news overall. TV news brands such as JTBC, MBC and YTN were vouched to be the more trusted media channels compared to the rest, with daily newspapers such as Donga Ilbo, Joongang Ilbo and Chosun Ilbo earning least trust by the public as media brands.

Structural problems still remain in the way of Korean media achieving both their independence and earning back the public’s trust as the nation’s gatekeepers of information.

RSF advised that the system of appointing managers at the public broadcasters such as MBC and KBS needs to be revised in order to guarantee media independence. RSF also urged South Korea to repeal laws that, on national security grounds, provide for extremely severe penalties for the dissemination of sensitive information, especially if it involves North Korea.

In the era of the Covid-19 pandemic, there is a risk of authoritarian regimes using the global public health crisis as an opportunity to implement shock doctrines. It will be up to the good, objective and healthy media ecosystem to ensure that there will not be a concealment, reduction, control of information on COVID-19 to the public. Post-Covid-19 2021 will mark the beginning of the future of journalism in which the role and responsibility of the media will become even more critical to the well-being of the global and domestic society but also more aggressively jeopardized by global and domestic triggers.