SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA—In late 1986, the journalist Kim Tae-hong was arrested and taken to the ‘anti-communism investigation room’ for exposing government censorship notes known as ‘report guidelines,’ which had been distributed discreetly to editors of news agencies. Torture tactics likely wrung out from Kim information about his comrades, and the police arrested and detained two other journalists involved in the exposure.
Jailed and tortured journalists have become an archaic horror story of the past dictator regimes in South Korea, which this year ranked 4th in Asia on the RSF World Press Freedom Index. Nowadays the majority of the South Korean public would recoil in disapproval at the sight of an outright infringement on press freedom. However, that doesn’t mean that all politicians happily accept criticism. Politicians’ attempts to control the media have become subtle and creative, but they are far from nonexistent.
In early June, conservative members of the Seoul Metropolitan Council motioned to end the city’s financial contribution to the liberal news channel TBS, echoing the Mayor of Seoul Oh Se-hoon’s distaste for the television and radio network.
Traffic Broadcasting System (TBS) is a South Korean public news agency that provides live traffic information to the frantic drivers of Seoul. Traffic broadcast is but one of its many programs; TBS is better known for Kim Ou-joon’s News Factory program, where its eponymous host, Kim Ou-joon, discusses current events and politics.
The program is the single most popular radio program in the Seoul metropolitan area, boasting the highest rating among 20 radio programs for four consecutive years.
When Kim, an unapologetic liberal, endorsed a liberal presidential candidate on his YouTube channel, controversy brewed. Right-wing politicians and conservatives widely criticized Kim for displaying his liberal biases as a public news host. Undeterred, Kim continued to garnish the radio news reportage with his liberal commentary.
Last month on his TBS show, Kim criticized the conservative President Yoon Seok-youl, who is a former public prosecutor of almost 30 years, for appointing his cronies to several key government positions. He sarcastically remarked, “It’s a beautiful world only for public prosecutors,” and proceeded to play “What A Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong.
Recently, conservative politicians acted on their disapproval of TBS; on July 4, the Seoul Metropolitan Council motioned to privatize the news network, which would effectively cut off Seoul’s financial support to the station.
The city of Seoul currently funds about 70% of the TBS budget. Without Seoul’s money, TBS would inevitably face severe financial difficulties, if not be forced to close. The city council motion follows the Seoul mayor’s previous attempts at rattling the news channel into submission.
Last year, the mayor proposed cutting the city’s contribution to TBS by 12.3 billion won (US$9.4 million), or 33%. The proposal for the dramatic cut faced resistance in the city council, which then had an overwhelming liberal majority.
But the tables have turned over the past year; conservatives now hold 76 out of 112 seats in the council. This time, the mayor did not even have to act himself. Going a step further than a budget decrease, the council proposed to cut the city’s contribution altogether.
Also, in May, the mayor had vowed to reform TBS, proposing to convert its production content from traffic to education. He argued that its original function of traffic broadcast is no longer essential.
Critics of the proposal suspect that the proposed revision of the news network is a sordid attempt at attacking a network that sits on the other side of the aisle. Members of the TBS labor union stood in front of their company in protest, calling for an immediate end to the infringement on media freedom.
Kim, the News Factory host, briefly commented on the Seoul mayor’s proposal during his program. “There seems to be a plan to change the traffic broadcast to educational content. They should kick me out, not change the whole system. That’s Mayor Oh’s style; he’s good at hiding his intentions under a clever veneer. Does he think people won’t know? Let’s watch where Mayor Oh is going with this.”
Mayor Oh has denied accusations that he is attempting to control the media. In an interview with Yonhap News Agency, he said, “I have no intentions to impose guidelines or target a particular program.”
He did, however, concede that one of the reasons for his proposal is the left-leaning nature of TBS programs. “It is my duty as a mayor to set standards … There is a national consensus that TBS is too politically biased. No one thinks it’s fair, and even the liberals will agree with me.”
With a conservative-dominated city council at his back, the Seoul mayor is waging a war of attrition against TBS and its troublesome mascot, Kim.
The Seoul Inspection Committee has joined in, reprimanding TBS for paying Kim without a written contract. Additionally, the committee issued a warning directly to the president of TBS, Lee Kang-taek. The warning accused him of failing to heed an advisory from the Korea Communications Standards Commission, which had warned TBS about Kim’s endorsement of a liberal candidate during the presidential campaign.
In an interview with Yonhap News Agency, TBS president Lee expressed his frustration with Seoulite conservatives’ harassment of TBS, calling it an incident of “hare coursing.”
“What can we do if 70% of our budget disappears? They’re effectively telling us to shut down,” Lee lamented.
If the Seoul Metropolitan Council passes the resolution to end its contribution to TBS, then TBS will be privatized effective July 2023.
The privatization of TBS could mean its demise and consequently, Kim losing his job as a program host. However, Kim will likely find other ways to appear in the media. The News Factory is a radio program, but its videos get hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube daily. If the station shuts down, he would gain the status of a political martyr while appearing freely on other platforms like YouTube.
Kim is the founder and CEO of Ddanzi Group, an independent media company. A YouTube channel run by the company has more than a million subscribers. Kim currently hosts a weekly talk show on the channel, where he invites high-profile liberals to talk about political issues.
So, even if Kim loses his mainstream media role, Koreans won’t have trouble watching him on other platforms. A survey by the Korea Press Foundation reports that about 41% of Koreans get their news from the internet or online video platforms.
This trend is even stronger among young people; 82% of the respondents in their 20s said they get their news from the internet or online video platforms. As news consumers are flocking to the internet, “old media,” where the politicians’ influence is the strongest, is losing its grip on public opinion.
The democratization of South Korea dramatically changed the relationship between the media and politics, as politicians lost direct control over media output. However, the shrewdest of them still manage to exert influence—sometimes by leveraging their budgetary power.
But the diffusion of media is undermining politicians’ influence even further. With traditional media no longer the only source of news for Koreans, the public internet platforms are giving rise to a more robust, independent media scene, which is better positioned to maintain media freedom.