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People`s right to know vs. military intelligence

Posted December. 01, 2010 11:47,   


More than 50 reporters from South Korea and elsewhere are covering the situation on Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea, where tension is running high following North Korea’s shelling attack. Reporters have been reporting on recovery efforts and military moves in the area around the clock. Journalists uphold the people’s right to know and risk their lives on battlegrounds to inform the public. For the media, deserting a site with breaking news that draws public attention and blindly conveying the government’s announcements effectively constitute giving up their inherent responsibility as journalists.

Since the North’s shelling of the island, South Korean media have reported in detail the South Korean military’s weapons newly deployed to the island, scale of their deployment, and their specifications and performance. The media might report things that could breach national security and potentially benefit the enemy by providing military information to North Korea. Media organizations also need to reflect on whether what they report are problematic and in what way they will cover them. Following the sinking of the Cheonan by North Korea’s torpedo attack in March, the media extensively reported on the internal structure, loaded weapons, firepower of the missiles in the patrol boat, and their effective range, information which is deemed classified military data.

National defense and the people’s right to know are inevitably incompatible in many aspects. The government and military’s views on national defense and military intelligence could be different from those of the media. For example, The Dong-A Ilbo previously ran reports on the rusty and sloppy conditions of the South Korean military’s 90-millimeter coastline artillery guns. The military might think that the reports leaked a weakness but the daily chose to post the reports due to fears over national defense and the patriotic belief that the country needs to strengthen its counterattack ability. The military must first feel shame over leaving the guns in such shoddy conditions.

Other countries have also experienced conflict between national defense and freedom of the press. These include the “Pentagon paper case,” in which classified documents on the Vietnam War were leaked from the U.S. Defense Department. As a result, free democratic countries have set a principle that freedom of the press should not be restricted except in case of a “manifest and present” danger that jeopardizes national defense.

The military needs to establish rational guidelines over disclosing classified information and ask the media for cooperation. The reality is that the military has inadequately persuaded media from refraining from leaking military intelligence through news reports. News organizations must also consider the people’s right to know but use extra caution when reporting on classified military information.