The joint IPI/WAN delegation completed their mission in Seoul, South Korea, with a condemnation on 9 September of government intimidation of the press.

The International Press Institute (IPI) and the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) joint mission to South Korea found further substantiation that the Korean government tax investigation and the Korea Fair Trade Committee (KFTC) investigation were part of a politically motivated government campaign to harass, intimidate, and control the free and independently owned media.

This substantiation included:

– Only three weeks after President Kim Dae-jung announced that media reform was needed, the National Tax Service (NTS) launched a full scale tax probe on 23 news media. Even though the NTS claimed that the tax probe was a routine corporate audit, more than 400 out of 900 tax investigators were deployed, unprecedented numbers for a tax investigation in one business sector.

– The NTS violated the Korean law by disclosing the result of the tax probe into six news organizations. In the process, the NTS targeted the three big privately owned newspapers which have been the most critical of President Kim’s policies. Its announcement of the result was broadcast live on all TV stations, which the IPI and the WAN believe was an attempt by the government to paint the news media as criminals even before the trials.

– Fines and back taxes levied on news media are so exorbitant that most news media, especially the smaller newspapers, will be under great financial stress, thus subjecting them to the whims of financial institutions, which in turn are often controlled by the Korean government.

– The jailing of three media owners for tax evasion and embezzlement occurred even before their trials. According to Korean law, no one should be incarcerated unless the accused falls into any of the following categories: the accused has potential to flee; the potential to destroy evidence; or the potential for conspiracy with others. The IPI and the WAN, as well as many respected domestic and international lawyers, believe that the three media owners do not fall into any one of these categories.

This mission is the latest of several IPI initiatives regarding South Korea. The IPI has been documenting and protesting press freedom violations throughout the past authoritarian regimes, as publicly acknowledged by Kim Young-sam, then President of Korea, during the IPI World Congress in Seoul 1995. Kim said, “Fortunately, Korea’s democratisation movement enjoyed the strong support of the international press. The IPI, in particular, denounced the suppression of the press in Korea on many occasions, thereby bringing the harsh situation in Korea to the world’s attention, and also adopted resolutions calling for freedom of the press in Korea.”

This IPI/WAN joint mission had two objectives:

First, to announce the unanimous decision of the IPI Executive Board to put South Korea on the IPI Press Freedom Watch List. The IPI decision was made last week after the IPI had done extensive research over several months, which led to the conclusion that the government was politically harassing the independent media.

Second, to investigate the effects of this harassment of the media and to explore how Koreans can work to protect independent media from government intimidation, harassment, and control.

The guiding principle behind the IPI Press Freedom Watch List is to reach out to countries before they slide into repression. On this basis, the IPI Watch List focuses media attention on the offending country in the hope the country will be forced to make changes to practices and legislation. The list also acts as a means of maintaining vigilance over listed countries and will provide an indicator of where IPI can best devote its energies. In practice, countries placed on the list have their status evaluated twice a year by the board of the IPI. After the evaluation, countries will either be removed from the list or face renewed efforts by the IPI to bring about change.

The mission heard encouraging reports that the proposed legislation, which would dramatically reduce the ownership of the independently owned news media and thereby would subject them to government influence or control, would not be passed in the National
Assembly. Kim Joong-kwon, the chairman of the Millennium Democratic Party (MDP), told the IPI/WAN mission that neither the MDP nor the government had formally discussed the issue of limiting the ownership of media companies. Chung Jin-seok, the United Liberal Democrats (ULD) assemblyman and a key vote on the Cultural Tourism Committee, told the IPI/WAN delegation that he would never let this law reach the National Assembly. Lee Hoi-chang, the chairman of the Grand National Party (GNP), stated that the GNP would vehemently oppose such a law.

The IPI and the WAN are now alerting the world community to the press situation in South Korea and will continue to monitor and publicize developments there. They will inform the Coordinating Committee of Press Freedom Organizations about this issue at its meeting in Paris on Sep. 20. The Coordinating Committee is comprised of the world’s nine leading international press freedom organizations.

The delegation of this mission also expressed its disappointment that, despite the appeals of the IPI, the WAN, and many others, three media owners were jailed contrary to usual practices. The IPI/WAN delegation visited them in jail and was heartened by their confidence that the truth will prevail in the end.

The members of the joint mission were Johann P. Fritz, Director of the Vienna-based IPI; Roger P. Parkinson, President of the Paris-based WAN and Chairman of The Globe and Mail, Canada; Nils E. Oy, Secretary General of the Association of Norwegian Editors; and Bruce B. Brugmann, member of the IPI American Committee and Editor/Publisher of the San Francisco Bay Guardian.