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<12> “Insipid Briefings” Fail to Solve Curiosity

Posted December. 17, 2007 18:41,   


Government Silent on Sensitive Questions… Briefing Turned into “Public Reading of Government Documents”

《# Case 1: The Ministry of National Defense on June 1 gave a briefing in which it was revealed that, as of May 31, it concluded the procedure on returning nine USFK bases to S. Korean government, including Camp Page in Chuncheon, Gangwon Province. Since the pollution of soil in U.S. bases and the cost of recovery were the most important issues at the time, the journalists were mostly interested in the status of environmental pollution at the bases of returned U.S. forces.

But the “question of national concern“ was left unanswered by both the two-page press release and the words of an official of the National Defense Ministry who delivered the briefing. When questions were posed on the level of environmental pollution and the recovery process, the defense ministry official simply said, “I believe the Ministry of Environment knows the answer to that.”

The same happened in the surprise briefing given by the Ministry of Environment in the afternoon of the same day. The one-page press release did not go any further than the one already distributed by the Ministry of National Defense. When journalists repeatedly questioned the pollution levels and cost of recovery, a Ministry of Environment official refused to elaborate, saying, “I cannot answer.”

# Case 2: During a regular briefing on June 5, the Ministry of Construction and Transportation (MOCT) issued documents regarding its enforcement of recommendation criterion on indoor air quality of new vehicles and added explanations. But there was little new information released on the matter compared to what the Ministry publicized at the end of last year. The briefing concluded with a ministry official reading the document aloud and no journalist raising a question.

This briefing by the MOCT was the first regular briefing given in four days since the government’s announcement on June 1 that it will develop Dongtan New City, Gyeonggi, as the alternative to Gangnam. Journalists were naturally focusing their interest on the course of new city development promotion, but no related officials attended the briefing. The MOCT had made regular briefings comprising one preposterous press release.》

When the government introduced its Advanced Media Support System, it announced that it would faithfully open information through formal briefings by each ministry. But the briefings by government ministries have since been degraded to an insipid level.

More and more, a briefing is being transformed into a session where the government unilaterally publicizes its policies far away from the concern of people or explicates its stance about criticisms of policy. In many cases, the government avoids giving an answer or skips briefings involving actual concerns of the people or sensitive issues.

Feigning Ignorance on Sensitive Issues-

On February 8, a South Korea-U.S. technical negotiation was held concerning the inspection of beef imports. The meeting, held to discuss the sanitary conditions of imports between the two countries, was an important event that would hint at whether or not beef imports from the U.S. would continue in the future.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, giving a briefing on the result of negotiations, distributed copies of press releases – one of which contained only two sentences: “The meeting was held. Agreement has not been made.” Moreover, the briefing was held not on the day of the meeting but on the following day.

On June 7, when several days had passed since the fruitless 21st South-North ministerial meeting, the Ministry of Unification gave a briefing. Journalists wanted to know the influence of the meeting on inter-Korean relations, but the then Vice Minister of Unification, Shin Eon-sang, kept repeating the answer: “Inter-Korean relations are expected to proceed with no problem from a broad point of view.” Journalists’ curiosity was not humored concerning the matter of inter-Korean relations and any solutions the government may have designed.

It’s not to say that all briefings by government ministries are as insipid as these, but most of them are, nurturing the dissatisfaction of journalists.

No Regular Briefing by Minister Song for Eight Weeks-

For eight weeks, since the briefing on July 11, Song Min-soon, head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MOFAT), has not carried out any regular briefings for national and foreign reporters. The weekly regular briefing given by the minister is almost the only medium that reveals the official policies of MOFAT.

There were inevitable cancellations, such as that during the inquiry into official tours abroad, and there were also times when he cancelled the regular briefings for the simple reason that he had “nothing new to say.” On August 22 he triggered a journalist protest after canceling the briefing without giving prior notice to journalists who had already gathered to hear him.

MOFAT is among many ministries where the ministers or vice-ministers avoid giving briefings. Since the journalists are left unable to hear reliable responses or explanations, briefings can only grow unreliable.

The result of analyses carried out by Grand National Party assemblyman Kim Ki-hyeon, in the Special Committee on Budget and Accounts of the National Assembly, based on the record of briefings handed in by 18 ministries and five government agencies, showed that seven among them did not hold any regular briefing this year.

Almost No Briefing for Background Explanation-

It is hard to find a ministry which holds background briefings without a broadcasting camera or a recorder, in which policy staff come down to the press room and explain candidly the progress of policies.

The Ministry of Finance and Economy (MOFE), in charge of national economic policies, used to hold background briefings once or twice a week, only one or two years ago, allowing the journalists to hear frank explanations from those in charge of policies. But for more than two months, since July, MOFE has given only two background briefings.

In addition, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry has not given a background or a mid-term briefing, even on the issues of national interest such as the import of beef from the U.S. or the FTA negotiation.

Shocking news was reported on September 7, after the government announced erroneous fiscal statistics, after which the core ministry in charge – the Ministry of Planning and Budget – has not yet given a background briefing, let alone an official one.

[2.8 Billion Won Spent on Unreliable Electronic Briefing]

Many express negative views about the electronic briefing promoted by the Government Information Agency as part of the so-called Advanced Media Support System.

The online media support tests, implemented by the government for checking prior to the embodiment of the electronic briefing system, already reveal symptoms of unreliability. Two ministries, MOFE and MOFAT, are currently carrying out the tests.

As of September 10, there were only two answers and questions posted on the ‘Online Q&A Service’ being test-run by MOFE. But the posting date for the two questions is July 16, meaning that no question or answer has been posted for the past two months. The government is emphasizing the fact that it still is a ‘test’, but in reality it is being neglected by users, i.e. the journalists.

Initially, the government decided to build an electronic briefing system in order to enable real-time briefings and fact gathering activities through online Q&A, and to increase convenience for local and internet media companies. But the two journalists who posted the questions belong to dailies in Seoul, and no journalist in provincial areas or Internet media has made use of the service.

The situation is similar in MOFAT. As of the same day, only one Q&A has been posted, which is dated July 23.

Why is the journalists’ society giving such an icy reception to government employees concerning the online Q&A system? It’s because the contents of the Q&A are open to anyone.

The test service was a target of criticism in its initial stage, because it was viewed as “impracticable and policy-ignorant, even on the basics of press activity,” in that the service made the contents of journalists’ questions open to the public. Some also pointed out that the answers by government employees would be confined by formality because they could be read by anyone within the ministry.

The Government Information Agency recently completed the development of the electronic briefing system and plans to officially launch the system from around September 13. For the establishment of this system the government spent 2.8 billion won of tax.

The Government Information Agency explains that the electronic briefing, unlike the online Q&A test, will have a “hide” function so that the title and the contents of each question will not be revealed.

But since the online Q&A test, implemented to probe problems prior to the official launch, ended on a formal level, nobody can answer how actively the newly established electronic briefing system will be utilized.