As of December 31, 1998

Under the leadership of President Kim Dae Jung, the South Korean media are generally freer than at any time in the recent past. He has encouraged criticism of failed economic policies and spoken out forcefully in favor of democratic values. A former political prisoner who was once under a death sentence from a past military government, Kim was a hero to newspaper reporters and editors who frequently risked government sanctions and harassment to campaign for democracy in the late 1980s. In a dramatic demonstration of the turnaround in political fortunes, former dissident reporter Kim Chong-Chol was named president and publisher of Yonhap News, the official government news agency, in June. In 1976, the military government forced him out of his job at the newspaper Dong-a Ilbo for advocating press freedom.

Given President Kim's reputation as a champion of democracy, it is especially disturbing that he and his supporters have used existing criminal libel statutes, long a tool of authoritarian governments, against his right-wing opponents. Choi Jang-Jip of Korea University, a close adviser to the president, successfully sued Monthly Chosun, a right-wing magazine, for libel when it accused him of being pro-North Korea. A Seoul district court banned the sale and circulation of the magazine for the month of November.

And two conservative journalists were convicted and imprisoned on criminal libel charges brought by Kim's political party, the National Congress for New Politics. Ham Yun Shik, the publisher of One Way magazine, was sentenced to one year in prison in July. Son Chung Mu, the publisher of Inside the World magazine, was sentenced to two years in prison in October. Both men were accused of having defamed Kim during the election campaign with allegations that he was a communist sympathizer. CPJ appealed to Kim to drop the charges against the two publishers on the grounds that in a democracy libel should be treated as a civil matter and journalists should not be jailed for what they write or publish. The president's office failed to respond to CPJ's appeal.

As South Korea's economy foundered, the structure and performance of the news media have come under increasing scrutiny. Mainstream South Korean news outlets failed to apply a critical eye to economic reporting before the Asian slump, a fact that many analysts say contributed to the crash. "We journalists led them astray," veteran business reporter Sohn Byoung Soo said of his readers in an interview with the Far Eastern Economic Review in November. "We were guilty of printing government statements without checking the facts." Politically powerful families and massive conglomerates control the mainstream media, and some reporters say they have been discouraged from digging deeply into economic mismanagement issues which might displease their bosses. A nonprofit watchdog group, the Citizen's Coalition for Media Reform, headed by Kim Joong Bae, a well-known journalist, was established in September to monitor ethical practices and examine the structure of media ownership.

Attacks on the Press in South Korea in 1998

06/01/98Son Chung Mu, Inside the World magazineImprisoned
04/27/98Chon Bong Jae, World KoreaLegal Action
02/28/98Ham Yun Shik, One WayImprisoned

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.