Fans of Infinite Challenge and I Live Alone came to a nasty shock when it was announced a while ago that they would be canceled indefinitely in light of the MBC and KBS joint Labor Union’s strike. When asked for comment, Infinite Challenge producer (PD) Kim Tae-ho has been recorded saying that under MBC, he doesn’t feel like a PD, but a slave instead. The cancellations did not end there, and over the next few days it was announced that Music Core, Happy Together, and Music Bank were to be temporarily taken off air, along with the cancellations of this year’s DMC Festival and Idol Star Athletics Championships (with the latter being taken with much less disappointment amongst K-pop fans).
As one of the representatives summarized, having lost the trust of the public through politically-biased reporting, defamation and editorial intervention, the MBC and KBS joint labor union called for the reform and restoration of public concern in the media, as well as justice for journalists who were unfairly fired, transferred, suppressed, or given disciplinary measures. In the union’s eye, this reform and restoration of trust in the media can only begin with the joint resignation of current MBC President Kim Jang-gyum and current KBS President Go Dae-young.
You would be forgiven if you think all of this feels like déjà vu. The last MBC-KBS joint strike which also led to Infinite Challenge being taken off air happened just five years ago in 2012, which ultimately led to the resignation of then MBC President Kim Jae-chul and then KBS President Kim In-kyu. The KBS strike after that — calling for the resignation of then-KBS President Gil Hwan-young — happened just three years ago in 2014. All of these strikes have called for the resignations of the higher ups, a withdrawal of unjust punitive measures imposed on the union executive members, as well as fairness and justice in South Korean Journalism. The implications of yet another strike being called so soon, with the same motives and goals, are disheartening and obvious: even with the successful resignations of the people in charge, the strikes had otherwise little effect. Nothing had changed.
On close inspection, however, it is little wonder why the resignations had such limited effect: the very system of the press – especially MBC and KBS — is largely tilted in favor of South Korea’s ruling party, and cannot be changed with actions as simple as resignations. To begin with, KBS — Korean Broadcasting System — is the national public broadcaster of South Korea. As part of the Constitution, the President of KBS can be chosen by the President of South Korea after being recommended by its board of directors, the individual members of which can be named by the political parties in South Korea. The problem is, however, that the president and his or her ruling party have the right to decide 6 out of 9 members in the chief executive board. In other words, this rule gives the president almost exclusive power to determine who should be the head of KBS.
Similarly, despite being a private company since 1988, MBC – Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation – is in essence controlled by the state. Originally a federation of 20 loosely affiliated member stations located in various parts of Korea, the individual stations were forcefully consolidated into one major network under former President Chun Doo-hwan, and each affiliate was forced to give up the majority of their shares to the MBC affiliate based in Seoul. That MBC affiliate was forced to give up 70% of MBC’s total shares to KBS which, as I elaborated above, is essentially under the President’s control. That 70% of the shares were eventually transferred to the Foundation for Broadcast Culture (FBC), a non-profit organization whose directors are appointed by the Korea Communications Commission (KCC), whose President is appointed by – you guessed it — the President of South Korea.
Hence, the successful resignations of Kim Jae-chul and Kim In-kyu in the 2012 MBC-KBS joint strike would mean nothing if the President is still able to cherry-pick its replacement, and the unions know it. An anonymous spokesman from the KBS Media Workers’ Union in the midst of the 2012 strike puts it nicely.
Accordingly, our ultimate goal is not simply making President Kim [In-kyu] step down but more importantly bringing change to the way in which the president is selected and appointed. The systems in MBC and YTN have little difference in presidential appointment.
And yet, all things considered, the length of time between the current strike and the last is so small it borders on absurd. One cannot help but wonder what necessitated yet another strike. What had accelerated the frustration and discontent amongst journalists so quickly that another strike was needed? Well, as it turns out, South Korea outdid itself, providing not one, but two disasters for our consideration in that period of time.
For the first incident, we must go back to 2014 to the sinking of the Sewol Ferry. Now, the sinking itself was the culmination of a multitude of factors – ineptitude, inefficiency, corruption, and unwise legislation – but the ensuing fallout would never have been as bad had it not been for the actions of the government and the media.
30 minutes after the ferry sank, the media began coverage of the incident by shooting themselves in the foot. In the race to be the first to break the news, many news stations published wildly inaccurate reports that everyone aboard the ferry was rescued, giving netizens a brief moment of blissful ignorance, before the reports were updated with the first recorded death toll. As the day went on, netizens watched in horror as with each update, the death count was increased, until finally 294 were reported dead and 10 were missing. It turned out, many were simply mimicking the government’s report, written by officials not present at the scene.
The day somehow managed to go downhill from there, as various news stations apparently decided it was a good time as any for amateur hour. MBC received flak from the students’ parents on the day of the accident by reporting on the amount of the insurance payouts the victims’ family members would receive instead of the rescue effort. SBS aired images of a reporter grinning while covering the vessel’s sinking. Reporting live, an insensitive reporter from JTBC asked a rescued Danwon High School student if he knew his friends died, causing him to burst into tears.
And all of that was before the Blue House had decided to intervene. Yonhap News printed an article titled “Biggest Search Effort in History”, parroting the Blue House’s statement at a time when family members were protesting about discrepancies between the number of rescue workers announced by the government – 750 divers, with a multitude of helicopters and ships — and the number actually on the scene – 13, two of which were voluntary divers not part of the coast guard. Memorably, in a viral video, former-MBC-turned-independent journalist Lee Sang-ho – who later co-directed and released the documentary Dive Bell: The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol alongside deep sea diving expert Lee Jong-in — was enraged enough to confront a Yonhap News journalist for publishing blatant lies and trying to deceive the public.
Finally, it soon became glaringly obvious that there was a conscious effort to suppress any criticism of the President and the coast guard in their rescue efforts (or lack thereof). Soon after his resignation following insensitive remarks downplaying the tragedy, Kim Si-gon – former chief of KBS’s news bureau – confirmed that the Blue House had intervened in the media’s coverage of the ferry disaster. Senior officials from the Presidential office frequently gave him instructions by phone, whilst then-KBS-president Gil Hwan-young ordered him to edit out or cut back on segments that may involve negative reports about the Park Geun-hye administration, be they interviews from families on the scenes or op-eds from journalists.
All of this has brought the public’s faith in the press to an all-time low, to the point that KBS’ strike in 2014 was seen not only as a call for attention to the inadequacies of the current system, but also a self-serving affirmation by the journalists that they take their jobs seriously. One would think that with the dismissal of Gil Hwan-young, the government would take a hint from the entire incident and leave the press to its own devices, but no. Soon enough, the Blue House returned to its old ways of suppression, intimidation and censorship. It is poetic justice, then, that the following event eventually led to the administration’s undoing.
The second incident was the series of events that led up to the impeachment of Park Geun-Hye, and the revelations that came along with it. The discovery of a tablet belonging to Choi Soon-sil, the ‘hidden power’ and ‘Rasputin figure’ behind President Park Geun-hye, has helped expose a web of unprecedented corruption. Whilst a full list detailing the extent of the corruption would be huge, certain pieces of information have came to light between the info-dump and the 45-day candlelight revolution that have only served to exacerbate the journalists’ frustration.
One was a confirmation that the Blue House was abusing existing laws regarding libel and slander to silence its critics, journalists, and whistle-blowers-to-be. Using Korea’s liberal defamation laws, in which even truthful statements can be considered defamatory if considered “against the public interest”, the Blue House sued the newspapers and individuals who dared to expose Chung Yoon-hoi — husband of Choi Soon-sil — and Choi Soon-sil. For example, Blue House aides sued the journalists and editors of Segye Ilbo, the newspaper that initially reported on Chung Yoon-hoi’s improper influence over the Blue House for defamation, and indicted journalists who inadvertently got close to Choi Soon-sil — such as Kato Tatsuya of Japan’s Sankei Shimbun, who reported on the rumor that president Park Geun-hye was with Jeong Yoon-hoi during the Sewol ferry disaster. This has helped create an environment where whistleblowers are strongly dissuaded from coming forward.
The incident also served as a painful reminder of the sheer scale of editorial intervention the Blue House took part in with regards to investigative journalism. Sohn Suk-hee, weekday anchor of JTBC Newsroom and President of JTBC’s news division, was already one of South Korea’s most prominent and respected journalists before he stunned the nation with the news that JTBC had found the unencrypted tablet of Choi Soon-sil. This can be attributed to a variety of factors, including his natural charisma, his previous long history as an anchor and host on MBC, and more recently his conduct and professionalism in the face of the Sewol Ferry tragedy.
And yet, in retrospect, it was still surprising that he and JTBC alone had managed to deliver what is arguably the biggest scoop concerning the scandal. In the days leading up to the discovery of the tablet, Suk-hee helped arrange a live interview with whistleblower Ko Young-tae to know more about the extent Soon-sil had over the President, and it was Young-tae’s remark that “Choi’s favorite thing to do was to edit Presidential speeches” that helped lend credence to the evidence found on the tablet days later. And still, other news stations had not done any further investigations of their own, only picking up the news of the web of corruption a day later, when JTBC had already fired the first salvo. Why was this? Surely Suk-hee and his team in JTBC weren’t the only journalist mindful of their duty in serving the public’s interest.
As it turned out, other stations’ journalists had indeed tried, only for the higher ups to swiftly nip it in the bud before any real damage could be done. To name an example, even MBC’s acclaimed investigative journalism program PD Notebook had their hands tied. PD Notebook is famous for running an exposé on the danger of Mad Cow Disease in American beef in 2008, which former President Lee Myung-bak relaxed its stance towards in a controversial decision. Several days of massive protests ensued, and though President Lee finished his term relatively unscathed, he began an effort to suppress PD Notebook’s investigative efforts, starting with a legal suit towards the journalists that broke the story.
Two of PD Notebook’s producers on strike, Cho Jin-young and Soh Jung-moon, had come forward unveiling multiple cases of government intervention, where proposals critical of the Blue House — such as the recent state-authored history textbook, the 2015 Korea-Japan sex slave deal, the Sewol Ferry, and an exposé on labor issues and the orchestration of a massive anti-government rally in 2015 — were all rejected or postponed indefinitely, and their efforts to investigate Choi Soon-sil were similarly not entertained. For both Cho and Soh, enough was enough.
“PD Notebook used to have the image of a bold critic that would stand up against power and corruption in government. But since the Lee Myung-bak government, we have been deprived of having our own voice.”
In a time where the President of the United States goes on Twitter daily calling articles considered damaging to his Presidency ‘fake news’, South Korea’s media woes have never seemed more relevant and important. The most common justification that journalists make for their work is that it is “in the public interest.” With their defamation law, President Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak saw fit to change their definition of “against the public interest” to encompass anything remotely critical of their administration. This ranges from the decision to relax their stance on American beef, to allegations that they utilized the National Intelligence Service for an aggressive online campaign, including millions of Pro-Park tweets, to sway public opinion in their favor during the 2012 Presidential Election.
But what they don’t know — or choose to ignore — is that the public interest is something else entirely. The public interest is not only what the readers, listeners or viewers want either as consumers or people who want to be entertained. It is about issues which affect everyone, even if many of them are not aware of it or even if they don’t appear to care. It is for this reason that journalists fight for their voice, for the freedom to ask the hard questions without the nagging fear of a legal suit, for the right to go the extra step in investigating something which affects the lives of others. It is for this reason that even with the past failures in mind, the MBC and KBS labor unions have decided to go on strike one more time.
But the million dollar question remains: would this be the strike to end all strikes, the strike that brings forth change beyond simple resignations, the one that sticks? Personally, I’d say it’s safe to feel cautiously optimistic. With the unanimous impeachment of Park Geun-hye, more people have recognized the value of quality journalism, and are more understanding of the motives behind the strikes. An anti-graft law combating corruption and exclusive ‘press clubs’ has recently been passed. And more importantly, South Korea has a new President, Moon Jae-in, who is more likely to be sympathetic to the journalists’ demands. But it is a long process, and it will likely take years before a complete reform of the media system is passed. Until then, South Korean journalists must not get complacent and assume all is well since the impeachment, and must continue to fight for their rights to serve the public interest without fear of reprise.
All things considered, if it aids in the freedom of the press, a hiatus of Infinite Challenge would be a small price to pay.
(AskaKorean , Nate , JTBC, Hankyoreh , Ethical Journalism Network, Korea Times , Korea Herald, KoreaExpose , Groovekorea , Sampsonia Way, NY Times, The Guardian, Youtube. Images via Yonhap News, JTBC, MBC, Korea Herald, redian, Huffington Post, Time, NBC News, The Sun)