The Korea Herald


[Wang Son-taek] Problems in press freedom and democracy

By Korea Herald

Published : May 9, 2024 - 05:30

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The 2024 World Press Freedom Index, released recently by Reporters Without Borders, an international organization for monitoring press freedom, contains a severe warning to democracy in Korea. In the index, which reflects the media situation in 2023, South Korea ranked 62nd out of 180 countries surveyed. Korea received its worst report card since it ranked 69th in the 2009 index and 70th in the 2016 index. It was 43rd in the 2022 index, when the index methodology was changed significantly, but fell to 47th in the 2023 index and then plunged 19 steps down in two years. Furthermore, Korea has been demoted to the third category of "problematic" among the five categories, though it has usually been included in the second category of "satisfactory."

It is even more shocking to look at the details. In terms of press freedom in the political context out of five contexts, Korea ranked 77th. In the sociocultural context, it was 89th. The index is even more ominous when we recall that Korea fell from 13th to 47th in five years in the annual Democracy Report index by the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. If we think the democracy index was the first alarm on the state of South Korea's democracy, this time should be the second warning on the state of Korea's press freedom as the cornerstone of democracy.

It is painful to see Korea's press freedom fall from the top class to the middle level in just a couple of years. However, there is also a positive point in that exposing problems provides opportunities to correct them. Analyzing the press freedom index can reveal three issues: the president's perception of the media, a partisan approach to journalism and social constraints on journalists.

The WPFI shows that the South Korean government has not adequately protected press freedom in the last year or two. Instead, it criticized the ruling party for attacking media companies that have been critical of the president or government.

In November 2022 RSF criticized how an MBC reporter was not allowed to board the presidential plane during one of the president's official trips overseas. It also criticized President Yoon Suk Yeol for unilaterally stopping his daily briefings to reporters and installing a wall in front of the press room in the presidential office building so that visitors to the presidential office could not be seen.

Partisan politics is also recognized by the annual ranking. Since 2002, when RSF first released the index, Korea has ranked around 40th. However, Korea ranked 69th in the 2009 index and 70th in the 2015 index, making it difficult to see Korea as a democracy. Korea's ranking in the 2009 index was related to the dismissal of union workers at YTN and MBC following the inauguration of President Lee Myung-bak. The 2015 index was the result of the confrontation between the media and President Park Geun-hye. The motivations of the two former conservative president’s disputes against media were partisanship.

RSF also criticized the progressive political camp in Korea. In 2021, the organization criticized the Moon Jae-in government's efforts to amend the Media Arbitration Act, which would introduce punitive compensation for media companies that produce fake news. However, these efforts did not appear directly to affect the 2022 press freedom index, as the then-ruling Democratic Party of Korea withdrew them at the last stage of the parliamentary process.

The fact that Korea is ranked 89th in its sociocultural context likewise has profound implications. Korea was ranked 52nd in the 2023 index, meaning it has fallen 37 steps in a year. In the sociocultural context, press freedom means a phenomenon in which journalists feel psychologically constrained by overwhelming public opinion or perception.

If the causes of the problem have been identified, a plan to correct it can also be devised. President Yoon can resolve the question of whether the government is suppressing the media by specifically expressing a position that he will guarantee press freedom and take matching measures. Effective measures include: frequently communicating with Korean media through official press conferences, press availability and lifting bans on reporters.

Politicians and the media should share responsibility for a situation where the influence of partisan politics restricts press freedom. The political circle should stop attacking media outlets according to their political leanings. Although politicians can exercise their right to object to media misinformation or prejudice, extreme polarization can make their objections political attacks on media companies.

The media community should make every effort to present the highest level of reporting and commentary and not be swept away by controversies over political bias or fake news. Unfortunately, some media companies regard themselves as political groups and expose their intention to manipulate the political flow, making distorted reports and comments. They can be seen as political profiteers wearing the mask of the media. Members of the media community should do everything they can to get rid of them.

People's support is necessary to raise Korea's press freedom index at the sociocultural level. Undue pressure on or criticism of journalists should be restrained as they are factors that ultimately limit press freedom. Insulting journalists does not help the development of Korean media culture at all.

It would be a catastrophic mistake to pour out excessive accusations against legacy media journalists, especially when some YouTubers are gaining explosive popularity by disseminating misinformation. Recognizing that regular media outlets can be reprimanded and corrected in cases of false reports is essential. YouTube activists cannot be punished in the same way.

It is disastrous that Korea's position on the press freedom index has fallen so shockingly. Still, if the announcement serves as an opportunity for Yoon and his government to work to guarantee press freedom, it could be a blessing in disguise for developing Korean democracy.

Wang Son-taek

Wang Son-taek is an adjunct professor at Sogang University. He is a former diplomatic correspondent at YTN and a former research associate at Yeosijae. The views expressed here are the writer’s own. -- Ed.