Tag Archive | "press freedom"

Will Seoul Become Asia’s Media Hub?

By James Constant

In July, the New York Times announced that it would move its Hong Kong-based digital news operation to Seoul over the course of the next year in response to the Chinese territory’s powerful new national security law, which went into effect in June. Already, press freedom in Hong Kong has come under attack. Jimmy Lai, the publisher of pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, was arrested under the law on August 10, and Hong Kong work visas for foreign journalists are now reportedly being vetted by a new national security unit.

The Times’ move to Seoul can be explained both by the worsening environment for journalism in Hong Kong and the generally poor state of press freedom in Asia. The paper mentioned that Bangkok, Singapore and Tokyo were also considered, and cited South Korea’s “friendliness to foreign business, independent press, and its central role in several major Asian news stories” as factors weighing in Seoul’s favor. South Korea is currently ranked 42nd out of 180 countries on Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Index, the highest in Asia, with only Taiwan approaching Korea’s ranking. Singapore, which has been floated as a potential landing spot for international financial firms based in Hong Kong, has an atrocious record on press freedom, and the city-state’s Media Development Authority has broad censorship powers. Taiwan’s geopolitical situation precludes effective China coverage. Tokyo is even farther from Southeast Asian news stories than Seoul, and Japan has seen a backslide in press freedom since the Specially Designated Secrets act went into effect in 2013.

Considering the current situation, the New York Times is not alone – the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post are also considering moving staff from Hong Kong. Should they do so, Seoul is an attractive option – if only because other options in Asia are so limited.

It wasn’t long ago that South Korea was mired in its own dark days of media repression, which extended to foreign correspondents. Steven Butler, who worked for the Financial Times and Christian Science Monitor in Seoul during the mid-1980s, recalled that the South Korean government “wanted foreign correspondents, but didn’t want them to write things they didn’t like. During the Chun Doo-hwan administration, they would invite you out to lunch, then pull out an article you wrote.”  John Burton, who worked for the Financial Times in Seoul in the 1990s, after Korea’s democratization, wrote a story about a corruption scandal surrounding the son of then-President Kim Young-sam. He said his editors received a request from the government that Burton leave the country.

Reporters for international news organizations have had a much easier time in more recent years. The most notable example of overreach by the current Moon Jae-in administration against foreign media was its racially-tinged singling out of a Korean Bloomberg reporter and describing his article as “borderline traitorous” for likening Moon to a North Korean spokesman. After facing heavy criticism from reporters’ organizations, the Blue House quickly walked back its statement.

While conditions have certainly improved over time, one of the most worrying elements of South Korea’s current press freedom situation is the potential for a regression in the future. Moon’s predecessor, now-imprisoned former President Park Geun-hye, presided over a cultural blacklist, and South Korea’s World Press Index ranking reached an all-time low of 70 in 2016, Park’s last year in office.

In separate reports on press and political freedom in South Korea published during the Park administration, the United Nations Human Rights Commission, Reporters Without Borders, and Freedom House, an American watchdog group, all cited criminal defamation laws and the National Security Act as key tools of repression. These laws remain unchanged today.

Revealing facts can still be punished by up two years in prison under the current defamation law. The National Security Act, introduced in 1948, provides stern penalties for vaguely-defined acts that may benefit North Korea, and was used in 2012 to imprison a photographer for satirically retweeting messages from a North Korean Twitter account. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called for the National Security Act to be repealed. As long as these laws remain on the books, reporters in South Korea must be wary of running afoul of them, with the inevitable result being self-censorship.

These concerns may seem minor compared to the new atmosphere of hostility to the press descending over Hong Kong. But Seoul currently has an opportunity to position itself as the new capital for international media in Asia, which could confer the same kind of cosmopolitan image to the city that Hong Kong currently enjoys.

In August, the Seoul city government set up the Seoul International Financial Office in Yeouido, which offers a variety of benefits for international financial firms looking to relocate to the city. South Korea has presented no similar plan for relocating media companies, but addressing problems in the legal code would be a good first step.

Revisions to South Korea’s National Security Act and draconian defamation laws could make the country Asia’s undisputed leader in press freedom, considering the miserable state of much of the region. South Korean politicians have long demonstrated their interested in bolstering the capital region’s prestige as a global city through major infrastructure projects like the Songdo International Business District and Incheon International Airport. By rethinking their approach to focus on revising the law to promote free expression, South Korea would be well-positioned to turn Hong Kong’s potential loss of prestigious international media companies into Seoul’s gain.

James Constant is an MA candidate in East Asian Studies at Leiden University. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Picture from the flickr account of Andreas Komodromos.

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Calls to Ban Anonymous Online Comments Contradict Court Precedent

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

What Happened

  • K-pop singer and actress Sulli committed suicide after being subjected to prolonged online bullying.
  • After the singer’s death, 7 out of 10 South Koreans supported the use of real names when making comments on websites and other online platforms.

Implications: The public’s demand for the abolition of anonymous online comments contradicts the Constitutional Court, which sees online platform’s enforcement of real names as a violation of free speech. Meanwhile, cases involving online rhetoric has also become a growing issue for the Ministry of Justice. Online defamation cases doubled between 2014 and 2018. These developments suggest that the government may push for measures that ensure greater individual accountability in online speech – but would need to take on a case that would overturn existing precedents.

Context: In 2007, the government introduced the real-name identification system for around 150 popular websites including news media. The following year, the ruling party tried to regulate the internet by punishing online slanders after Korean actress Choi Jin Sil committed suicide after being bullied online. However, the bill did not become law because many lawmakers were concerned that the government may infringe on people’s right to free speech. In 2018, the Constitutional Court backed this position and reiterated that anonymous online comments are protected under the South Korean constitution.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Soojin Hwang, Hyoshin Kim, and Rachel Kirsch.

Picture from user Rob Fahey on flickr

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North Korea Loses its Place Atop the World’s Most Censured Nation’s Lists

By Chad 0’Carroll

Last week the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released a report which put Eritrea as the world’s leading censor of the media.  Eritrea sat on top of a list of ten countries which CPJ said had “dictatorial controls” on domestic media, followed closely by North Korea, Syria and Iran.  North Korea, which was long regarded as worse than Eritrea when it came to press freedom, seems to have improved its standing since the CJP’s last report in 2006. The improvement is also reflected in the work of Reporters Without Borders, who now rank North Korea as second to last when it comes to this year’s Press Freedom Index.  While there is still huge room for improvement, the shift is somewhat notable. But what is behind this change? Have things actually gotten better in North Korea or is the situation in Eritrea so bad now that North Korea’s position had to improve, albeit relatively?

Although Eritrea surfaces in the news a lot less than North Korea, there is no doubt that the dictatorship of Isaias Afewerki has done much to limit press freedom. Having seized power in 1993, Afewerki promised elections to take place in 1997, but in the end they never happened. Fast forward to 2001 and responding to criticism from the private press about the lack of elections, Afewerki ordered the closure of all independent media and expelled all foreign journalists. Since 2001 there has been not one single foreign correspondent based in the country, with the case of Swedish correspondent Dawit Isaak, imprisoned for over a decade now, underlining the harsh conditions foreign journalists face in reporting on the country.

With media restricted now to three state-run newspapers, three radio stations and two television stations, the government controls nearly all media in Eritrea. Internet access is theoretically available but is highly monitored, with all foreign news sites blocked.  And while satellite TV is possible, only the affluent can afford the dishes required to receive outside broadcasts. In this environment even state media officials fear for their safety, and in 2009 the entire staff of Radio Bana, a small radio station based in the capital city that put out educational programs under the sponsorship of the education ministry, were all arrested without explanation.  As such in this environment it is not hard to understand why even government employed journalists regularly flee the country, fearful of provoking the wrath of their government employers.

From looking at the above facts, it looks clear that the situation in Eritrea has worsened significantly over the past decade or so. But have things really improved in North Korea, or did Eritrea’s situation become so dire that the CJP authors had little choice but to elevate the DPRK, even though little had changed?  In answering this question one must consider two factors; the internal and the external.

Internally there is not much evidence that the media environment of North Korea has changed much over the past decade. Citizens of the DPRK still receive nothing but state run media, forming principally of one nationwide TV station, three radio stations, and five newspapers. TVs and radios must be specially modified to receive only state authorized stations, and jamming is commonplace along the border areas. The internet continues to be banned for almost all citizens, but a highly controlled intranet system known as “Kwangmyong” has surfaced in recent years.  All North Korean media outlets continue to serve the government as both propaganda outlets and censors – only news and information that can be used to help bolster regime credentials or undermine adversaries is published. Whether or not there is the same degree of repression for government journalists as in Eritrea is unknown in North Korea, where it would be almost unthinkable to challenge the leadership in any media.

While nothing has changed in North Korea’s government run internal media environment, there has nevertheless been a “quiet opening” as far as the reach of foreign media is concerned.  New communications technologies have opened the country up to foreign news, information, and entertainment, through the import of DVDs, USB sticks, cell phones and radios. Recent research suggests that up to 48% of the population has viewed a foreign DVD, while foreign radio broadcasts are increasing in reach and helping to shape citizens’ views of the outside world more than ever before. The changes in how foreign media are handled  marks a stark change to over a decade ago, when punishments for watching foreign DVDs or listening to illegal radio broadcasts were harshly punished as a matter of course, and when communications technologies had not evolved to the point of facilitating easy and clandestine distribution.  But it is nevertheless important to remember that this development does not come with the blessing of the state.

Externally, North Korea does appear to have made some basic progress regarding improving its outward-facing media environment.  Unlike Eritrea, North Korea has for many decades allowed foreign media to operate bureaus in Pyongyang, although for long this had been restricted mainly to “friendly” countries like Russia or China.  However, with the opening of an Associated Press bureau in January 2012, headed by experienced journalist Jean H. Lee, Pyongyang appears to opening to Western media in ways not seen until this year.  AP now partners with KCNA and at their Pyongyang bureau both international and local journalists work side-by-side. As of yet the international reporters rely on North Korean officials to escort them around the country, which has sparked some strong debate about AP’s degree of reporting freedom. Joshua Stanton has spear-headed this criticism, blogging about his concerns several times over the past few months. However, in a recent interview with KoreAm, office Director Jean H. Lee countered this criticism, explaining that her team is neither censored nor told what to write about.  Whatever the reality, the presence of AP has led to some interesting new coverage from North Korea and Tweeting from Pyongyang that would have been unthinkable just a year ago. As such, in this author’s opinion it makes a welcome addition to the North Korea media environment, and one that with hope will lead to increased transparency in the traditionally closed off state.

The improvements in press freedom in North Korea are small, but should nevertheless be welcomed and do justify its small but noticeable improvement in international rankings. For its part, the situation in Eritrea has clearly become extremely dire and more attention should be focused on highlighting the brutal conditions imposed by President Afewerki.  While North Korea continues to regularly feature on international news broadcasts, the plight of millions of Eritreans is more or less left ignored by Western media.  Arguably, this is related to North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons – so Eritrea’s new position as worst ranking in press freedom should be welcomed, helping cast much needed light on the countries dire situation.

Chad 0’Carroll is the Director of Communications for the Korea Economic Institute. The views represented here are his own.

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