Media monopolies versus editorial independence: signs of hope in Korea

Aidan White
30 January 2002

When it comes to media monopolies there’s no shortage of people ready to fret about the future. Distinguished writers and editors who made their names in the newsrooms of twenty or thirty years ago wring their hands in despair over the loss of mission and conscience in contemporary, corporate-owned journalism.

But beyond the eloquent critique of concerned individuals such as Robert McChesney, a new collective struggle is emerging as abstract anxiety about professional standards under increasing media concentration gives way to more immediate confrontation between journalists and their employers.

There are examples of this struggle across the world. In Canada, standards in broadcasting policy are the subject of heated dispute between media staff and regulators; in Germany, Europe’s largest journalists’ union has launched a national campaign to combat ‘dumbing down’; in Italy, journalists are launching a long-overdue campaign to clip the wings of media magnate Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi; and in Korea, journalists and civic groups are taking on powerful newspapers in a nationwide campaign for journalistic freedom.

Journalists against the monolith

It is, by any reckoning, an unequal struggle. Not only because media conglomerates are powerful adversaries, but because they are also the potential employers of the majority of news journalists, who, if they do raise objections to unchecked media power, risk biting the hand that feeds them.

Media conglomerates exercise enormous influence as they jostle for leadership in the global media economy, competing furiously for access to mass markets in Asia, Europe and Latin America. But they don’t only make money. They make politics, too.

News Corporation’s well documented censoring of its own Star TV broadcasting and Harper Collins publishing arms, which removed material critical of China just as the corporation was seeking access to the lucrative Chinese market, is one notorious example of how global media enterprises can pose a significant threat to freedom of expression and the democratic process. Silvio Berlusconi’s exploitation of the resources of his Mediaset empire in his election victory – detailed by Hallin and Mancini – is another.

Media corporations invest heavily in lobbying politicians and human rights groups, and they tweak the noses of political authorities whose rhetoric may reflect concern about media monopolisation, but who become spineless and complacent in the face of opposition from big media. For almost ten years, for example, the European Commission in Brussels has stalled on a promise to bring forward rules covering media ownership within the European Union.

Recent experiences in North America provide even more vivid illustration. In Canada, in August 2001, the country’s broadcasting regulator awarded new seven-year licenses to CanWest Global and CTV, companies with both newspaper and audiovisual interests. Journalists accused the Canadian Radio and Television Communications Commission of “sacrificing standards, diversity and quality journalism in the face of media concentration and convergence.”

Canadian journalists fear that the practice of reporters doubling-up on assignments for different media within the same company – a common practice in US journalism, and an inevitable outcome of cross-media ownership – will affect quality and undermine editorial independence.

These anxieties were confirmed in December when CanWest, which owns fourteen major newspapers around Canada, announced that all its newspapers would print identical editorials prepared at company headquarters in Winnipeg, sidelining well-established regional voices.

Journalists in Quebec, angered by the imposition of a corporate voice almost half a continent distant, withdrew their bylines in protest, arguing that editorial independence was being sacrificed to serve the company’s national business and political agenda.

In the United States both the major political parties and individual congressmen receive donations directly from media companies. A total of seventy-five million dollars was handed over by media to their political friends between 1993 and June 2000. It was money well spent.

One of the most remarkable (and least publicised) media events of recent years was the decision in 1996 to make a free gift to broadcasters of portions of the digital spectrum in the United States, a deal worth around seventy billion dollars.

The legislative and political agenda of major media in the United States is well on track – removing the ownership and competition rules of the Federal Communications Commission, challenging unfavourable tax laws, resisting any attempt to limit political advertising on television.

Talking back to corporate power: Korea

Everywhere, it seems that the bottom-line is put before good journalism or public interest. But in the light of the narrowly parochial media coverage of the aftermath to 11 September in the US (discussed by Paul Gilroy and Danny Schechter), and the urgency of rethinking the distribution of media power (as suggested by Nick Couldry), we can learn much from the concerted action of journalists in one of the world’s newest democracies.

The Republic of Korea is one hopeful battleground for the soul of public-spirited journalism. There, a coalition of journalists and civil society groups are engaged in a high profile dispute over media policy with government, and powerful newspaper companies.

Rapid economic growth in Korea during the 1970s and 1980s provided a sound base for democratic change in the country and twenty years ago the country’s military rulers found themselves confronted by demands for radical reform articulated by middle class intellectuals and labour activists.

Journalists and civil society groups campaigned vigorously for change, wresting control of public media from the hands of the authorities, and demanding editorial independence within the private sector. They focused attention first on broadcasting and overturned restrictive rules which had been bulldozed through parliament in the early 1990s.

Among their demands were calls for parliamentary supervision of top appointments, new rules guaranteeing editorial independence and laws to prevent excessive concentration of ownership. The campaign involved occupation of television stations, and pitched journalists into direct confrontation with the authorities and with owners.

As a result of this action, six media union leaders were threatened with jail under south Korea’s draconian industrial relations laws for leading strikes. The harshness of the government’s response rallied many to the cause, with even media owners eventually appealing for the release of the union leaders.

The campaign’s success owed much to a successful coalition of interest groups that brought together media unions and three hundred and twenty-five Korean civil society groups under the leadership of Kim Jung-Bae, former President of the Hankyoreh Shinmun newspaper and one of Korea’s most senior journalists.

Campaigners have now turned their attention to the Korean press, which is dominated by three private newspaper groups – Chosun Ilbo, JoonAng Ilbo and Dong-A Ilbo.

These companies wield enormous influence and, according to many, have not been held sufficiently to account for their murky role in the years of dictatorship. Leading the campaign for reform are the Journalists Association of Korea and the Korean Federation of Press Unions, key members of a broad civil society solidarity movement, the People’s Coalition for Media Reform.

The Korean government exploited the wave of popular support for reform by launching an official investigation into tax evasion by press groups. It has resulted in charges being laid against twenty-three companies and the arrest, earlier this year, of several leading publishers. Bang Sang-Hoon, president of the Chosun Ilbo, Kim Byung-Kwan, ex-Chairman of the Dong-A Ilbo and Cho Hee-Joon, former Chairman of Kookmin Ilbo, all remain in custody under charges of tax fraud and embezzlement.

Press owners have cried foul, claiming the government is trying to stifle press freedom. But leading journalists have pointed out that both the tax prosecutions, and the protestations of media owners are diverting attention away from the necessity for effective legislative reform.

The prospect of meaningful reform of the media landscape has led to near panic in the boardrooms of media companies. The seriousness with which the prospect of reform is treated can be seen in the response of two powerful international media employers’ groups – the International Press Institute, a Vienna-based group of newspaper executives, and the World Association of Newspapers in Paris. Both have sent delegations to visit the imprisoned publishers and argued that the imprisonment of media owners is an attack on press freedom. They insist that any attempt by the south Korean government to reform the media would lead to increased censorship.

These reformers continue to call for legislation to preclude corporate and governmental interference in editorial decision-making, increase transparency in management structures, and establish legislative support of minority and independent media, especially local newspapers, to ensure diversity.

The battle for control of the newsroom in south Korea is one that strikes at the heart of corporate interests everywhere. The coalition in Korea which continues to press for reform – in the face of governmental and corporate hostility, and self-serving calls for press freedom from media owner organisations – offers a model of professional solidarity and a much-needed strategic lifeline to beleaguered news-gatherers elsewhere.

Gathering a coalition for change

What happens in Korea may be important in shaping the editorial landscape in the world’s largest untapped media market – China. But the prospects are not good.

Two of the world’s leading media corporations, News Corporation and AOL Time Warner, sidelined some fundamental freedoms in 2001 when bargaining over a television deal with Beijing. They offered to broadcast Chinese programmes, including government-controlled news propaganda, into the US in return for limited access to China’s terrestrial cable network for their own programmes. In doing so they accepted a complete ban by the Chinese on independent news and current affairs.

Meanwhile, press freedom groups struggle to raise the profile of their long-running campaigns to free journalists and film-makers who languish in Chinese jails for subverting state censorship.

Those who argue, like Benjamin Compaine, that the corporate threat is overblown, need to consider the damage that market-driven imperatives have on the cultural and democratic values of journalism, not just at home but in the wider global market.

Corporate power in media is not impervious, but it will take unity among media professionals, strong coalitions with the public at large, and political backbone to bring about change that will put quality journalism back on the news agenda, everywhere.

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