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<20> Interview with Professor Nam Shi-uk

Posted December. 17, 2007 18:20,   


“History will remember Roh’s dismembering of the press and free speech.”

《“What harm could the existence of a pressroom cause to its hosting agency? Can you imagine one? OK, Roh alleges the public is better served with a single, integrated briefing system. Then, why does the presidential office maintain its separate pressroom? Roh has dismembered the press and our right to free speech. He shut down all the pressrooms at government agencies. I can think of two words that best characterize his action: insanity and arbitrariness,” Sejong University professor Nam Shi-uk with an endowed chair, 71, angrily lashed at the Roh administration’s shutdown of the pressrooms. For 40 years prior to his academic career, professor Nam worked as a journalist, advocating freedom of speech. The professor defined Roh’s recent move as an “indescribable and deplorable abuse of power, an unimaginable act in a democratic society.”

“Roh seems to want to gag and manipulate the journalist community. He blatantly denies our citizens their rights to freedom of speech. History will remember and penalize him. Let’s suppose the pressrooms did cause some undesirable outcomes. We can just simply fix them. He didn’t have to close them. What Roh really wanted was to protect himself from the harsh criticism of the journalists,” continued professor Nam. He continued criticizing the Roh administration for its abusive and undemocratic decision. Near the end, he pleaded, “We have to be rational, and so does the president. I really do wish Roh would turn things around to how they were.” 》

Professor Nam points to Roh’s confused perception as the source of Roh’s hate policy against the press. According to the professor, Roh does not understand core ideas correctly.

“Roh keeps saying that reporters enjoyed privileges in the pressrooms. Of course, a reporter should not be entitled to any form of privilege. A privilege is not a right since it is not granted equally to all. But the pressroom is a necessary vehicle for a journalist to serve the public. It’s rather a prerequisite for the protection of free press and free speech. For some reason, Roh seems confused. That is why he shut down the pressroom, the symbol of privileges to him.”

Roh often cites advanced countries and alleges that they do not have pressrooms. But professor Nam rebuts the allegation and explains how Roh is wrong.

“Contrary to Roh’s allegation, advanced countries like the Untied Sates and Japan provide pressrooms. Moreover, each country has its unique tradition and situation. Thus, one country’s precedent does not apply across the board. If Roh really wishes to ‘advance’ the media, he should first enhance the administrative transparency and secure public access to the information. Shutting down the pressrooms will not get him anywhere.”

The current Freedom of Information Act does not penalize an agency that produces false information or refuses to produce documents after a long delay. Professor Nam stresses the dire need to amend the law. According to the professor, it’s time to introduce legal instruments to protect free speech and free journalistic activities such as the “sunshine law” or the reporter-source privilege.

The professor further points out Roh’s distorted view of the press. Roh understands the freedom of speech only, not the independence of the press.

“Compared with the old days, the freedom of speech has definitely advanced. But the press has been losing more ground in terms of independence. Let’s take a couple of examples to help you understand this better. When Roh says, ‘Newspapers write what they want,’ he’s referring to the freedom. But reporters intentionally keep some distance from politicians, corporations, unions, and other interest groups to maintain their independence. Not understanding the latter, Roh is threatening the independence.”

Especially, the professor decries the 100-billion-won subsidy the Roh administration annually funnels to three state-run bodies that put the press independence in peril: the Korea Commission for the Press, the Korea Newspaper Circulation Service, and the Committee for Local Press.

“Lollipops are sweet at first. If you keep licking them, your health will worsen. Likewise, if you rely on the life support out of tantrum, you may feel relieved initially. In the end, the independent press will become distinct, along with the freedom of speech.”

Professor Nam compares the government grants and subsidies to a deadly kiss. Once the press is unable to stand on its own, it will fall to corruption. He also rails against Roh’s adoption of the Chinese tactic of “controlling [enemies] by [enemies],” or in Chinese 以夷制夷. Pro-Roh print and media companies monopolize the government subsidies, and in turn, Roh uses them for his fight against the critical voices.

Nam also doubts why the government needs state-run broadcasting companies, such as KTV, Cheong Wa Dae Briefing, and Government Information Briefing. He believes Roh conspires to directly control the press through the media agencies. According to him, only dictators attempt to dominate the press with state-run broadcasting companies. For purely public relations purposes, a state-run news agency is not necessary, argues the professor.

“In the past, the United States government produced a posthumous film to honor the slain President John F. Kennedy. But Americans could not watch it; the film was distributed only outside the United States. Allowing it to be played in the United States, the U.S. officials believed, would violate the principles governing the public relations activities of a government. An elected and democratic administration promotes its policies through its political party by providing objective information alone. In other words, an administration cannot take the liberty of spending tax money on its own promotion. Roh assesses his policies with his own criteria. When a newspaper runs afoul of the criteria, he attacks it. It’s unthinkable! The press exists to oversee and check the government, not the other way around. Still, Roh tries to oversee the press and control it.”

The underdog mentality obsessing Roh influences his policies, points out Nam.

He takes former U.S .Vice President Spiro T. Agnew as an example. As vice president under the Nixon administration, Agnew vehemently denounced television news broadcasters over and over again as they opposed Nixon’s Vietnam policy.

Agnew decried how the biased “unelected elite” could tailor major national decisions, and promised to put an end to the privileges of the “elite.” He also called for explanation of the press coverage and characterization. Especially, he denounced how the “unelected elite” could subject “[elected president`s] speeches to instant analysis.”

“Roh seems to have a lot in common with Agnew and Nixon. Nixon himself did not conceal his hostility toward the critical, liberal U.S. print and broadcast media. Journalists understand that Nixon intended to arouse a chilling effect on the media,” explains the professor.

The professor also calls on the public against the danger caused by Roh’s legalized press suppression.

“Press-oppressing tactics took on a different look under military dictatorships. Now, it’s not that physical; rather, Roh’s tactics apparently look law-abiding, which is more dreadful. In the past, former military regimes targeted, for example, Dong-A Ilbo vehicles, and cited them whenever possible for parking violations. Surely, a parking violation deserves a ticket. But, in terms of fairness, it does not. In the same context, tax probes are legal in appearance. Looking inside, the motive negates the apparent legitimacy. That’s what was done. The tax authorities dispatched an unprecedented number of Korean IRS examiners to scrutinize Dong-A, a company that recorded only 300 billion won in pretax revenue. They set their goal at the beginning, and tried to find evidence buttressing their presumed guilty verdict.”

In June 1987 when angry South Koreans took to the street in protest against the torturing of a college student to death, professor Nam worked for the Dong-A as editor-in-chief. Dong-A dug up various facts, which led to the disclosure of the murder. As the facts mounted, the pressure from the government also mounted.

Once the daily newspaper copies began to be distributed, Nam recalls, he had to sneak out of his own office. Various government agencies including the spy agency, the prosecution, and the presidential office kept calling in to threaten him to downsize or delete the coverage. One day, for example, the Culture Ministry official called and told Nam to tailor the Dong-A coverage to fit into the government press release. Nam refused, and the spy agency stepped in.

“The head of the spy agency invited the editors-in-chief of all newspapers to a dinner. He told us not to run articles on the torture case until the government had made a public statement. Intimidated, no one would stand up against him. But I told him we had to. Otherwise, the citizens would suspect why the press all of sudden stopped covering the case. Of course, we continued the coverage. But the intimidation also continued in greater scale. Thus, I told my associate editor-in-chief in my room, ‘They may lock me up. Then, you should take up my role and continue what we have done.’ Any compromise would have killed our integrity, and will do so in the future.”

If any Dong-A member from top to bottom had succumbed to the threat, no one would know about the death case. He stressed yet again, ending the interview, that it is the duty and the calling of the press to stand up against those in power, and to check them on behalf of the public.