Controversy is snowballing over publicly-owned Munhwa Broadcasting Company’s latest replacement of its prime time News Desk anchor, prompting a boycott and rally by journalists and civic groups.
They claim that MBC’s latest decision, along with a number of events in the past year have been instances of oppression and censorship by the conservative government.
An association of reporters belonging to MBC have stepped up their protests against the replacement of former nine o’clock news anchor Shin Kyung-min and continued their weeklong boycott of production. They also warned of sterner measures unless management withdraws the decision this week.
A total of 11 press and civic organizations have taken part in a daily emergency roundtable since Monday. Under the title “The MB Government’s Media Oppression and a Crisis of Democracy,” meetings will continue for the following two weeks.
Discussions will deal with the latest controversies regarding media, which include the designation of a purportedly pro-government president for cable news channel YTN and the consequent arrest of a journalist who led the protest; prosecutors’ investigation into MBC’s PD Notebook for its coverage of mad cow disease and U.S. beef; and the indictments of web surfers who campaigned against advertisements in the big three newspapers considered to be pro-government.
Most recently on Wednesday, one of the PD Notebook’s directors was arrested by police for investigation. Civic groups lambsted the move as excessive as the arrest was made just three days before the director’s slated wedding.
“The Lee Myung-bak administration is following the exact footsteps of the past Park Chung-hee or Chun Doo-hwan governments in the way they are engaging in an all-out defensive press control often committed by the military dictatorships,” said Kim Joo-eon, advisor at Forum for Open Media and Open Society, a fund-based research center joined by media and various other experts.
“Even at this moment, the Lee Myung-bak administration’s oppression of the press continues.”
Kim also took issue with the government’s push to pass a media reform bill that would allow major newspapers and conglomerates to take over broadcasting stations. The bill, lambasted by opposition forces, is pending at the National Assembly.
The government and the ruling Grand National Party contend that such a bill will enhance the competitiveness of the media industry.
Management at MBC, one of the nation’s three largest broadcasters, said they decided to drop Shin Kyung-min as a way to “enhance competitiveness” after seeing that advertisements sales during the 9 o’clock news dropped sharply.
The association of more than 100 reporters, however, argues that it is a “foul game” resulting from the government’s oppression of freedom of speech and the public’s right to know.
Shin, 56, a career journalist who served as a Washington correspondent in 2000, is famous for his sharp-tongued closing comments on key issues.
One such case concerned the heated debate over “Minerva,” an online blogger arrested for posting anti-government outlook on the financial market.
“All of this is because (Minerva’s) analysis was more accurate and logical than that of the government’s,” Shin said on the air.
Earlier this month, scheduled appearances by the Yoon Do-hyeon Band on several shows on the public broadcaster KBS were cancelled. KBS’s decision lacked a clear-cut, immediate reason, leading to suspicions that lead singer Yoon’s outspoken liberal campaigns may have been the reason.
Yoon has been at the vanguard of various anti-government rallies, including the anti-U.S. beef protest earlier last year and a one-man protest against a dispatch of troops to Iraq in 2003.
Kim Mi-hwa, a comedian hosting popular MBC radio show “The World and Us,” was also almost ousted by management but was retained when public anger arose.
MBC president and former anchor Ohm Ki-young, in the meantime, explained that the decision to keep Kim was due to “the producers’ pledge to put more efforts into enhancing (the program’s) competitiveness.”
“Our decision is that Shin needed to be replaced to strengthen the competitiveness of the news program. There has been no external political pressure on this decision,” Ohm said in a statement.
“While there can of course be differences of opinion, the ultimate goal of the public broadcasting company MBC is that we all want to see impartial and balanced coverage that the people love.”
The conflict, however, looks to escalate further.
Since management’s decision, reporters from MBC and 19 affiliate news centers have joined the strike, along with other anchors including Kim Joo-ha of News 24, Park Sang-kwon, Hyeon Won-seob and Shin Ki-won.
Their latest attempt to negotiate between the management and labor on Wednesday also fell through with each side sticking to their position.
Ohm said he would have no other choice but to resign if the strike continues.
The reporters are demanding the withdrawal of Shin’s replacement, along with the resignation of the managing editor and vice president of the news department. They also demand a discussion about instituting fairer news editing.
“Even the managing editor had said during a meeting on April 7 that he was aware that there was pressure from Cheong Wa Dae,” an emergency committee of the reporters’ association said in a statement released on Monday.
They also cited several examples of potentially controversial cancellation of headline news. For instance, the reporters said that initial coverage of a suspected connection between the incumbent government and the businessman Park Yeon-cha, indicted for bribery, for a morning news program on April 11 was abruptly pulled at the last minute.
“(Management) is saying the succeeding anchor will be picked in a democratic way. How do they then explain the undemocratic way of ousting Shin?” the committee said.
The emergency committee is staging protest rallies at the lobby of MBC Broadcasting Center.
The committee also said that it has resolved to pass a no confidence motion regarding MBC’s managing editor Jeon Young-bae.
MBC’s largest shareholder is the Foundation for Broadcast Culture, a public organization. But MBC mainly operates on advertising revenues. The group has one national terrestrial television station, three radio stations, four cable, four satellite and five DMB broadcasts. (Korea Herald)