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SOUTH KOREA – More journalists arrested, pressure increases on media

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Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) wrote a letter to the President
Lee Myung-bak on 7 May 2009, presenting facts of arrest of journalists
critical of the government. The letter, below, also notes increasing
pressure on media in the country since March this year.
Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) wrote a letter to the President
Lee Myung-bak on 7 May 2009, presenting facts of arrest of journalists
critical of the government. The letter, below, also notes increasing
pressure on media in the country since March this year.

Dear President Lee:

The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned by your
administration's increasing pressure on the Republic of Korea's
media. The arrest on April 28 of four staff members with your country's
second-largest broadcaster, Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), is only the
most recent step in what appears to be a broader effort to stifle independent
reporting critical of government policies.

On May 1, prosecutors told reporters at a Seoul press
conference that the four MBC staffers — reporters Cho Neung-hee and Song Il-jun
and newsroom writers Kim Eun-hee and Lee Yeon-hee — were arrested the day
before in connection with a report by the station last year. They were charged
with spreading false rumors that said U.S. beef caused mad cow disease in
humans. They were arrested soon after they left the MBC building, where they
had protested their prosecution for a month.

On April 13, MBC fired Shin Kyung-min, anchor of its
primetime news program "News Desk". South Korean media gave extensive coverage
to ensuing protests of the May 1 arrests by staff of your country's four major
broadcasting stations. Shin had been the anchor when the mad cow story aired on
the channel's investigative show "PD Notebook", and had a reputation for being
openly critical of your government.

MBC President Ohm Ki-young denied charges that Shin was
fired because of his role in reporting the story or his anti-government
positions. Ohm was widely quoted as saying that the firings were carried out to
"regain" political balance and credibility and to better compete with the rival
9 p.m. news at the state-run Korean Broadcasting System.

We are concerned because the prosecutions, sackings, and
protests come amid a broader set of disputes with the government and the
station's management. In 2008 your government said it would accelerate its plan
for deregulation of the republic's vibrant media industry. The TV networks
resisted the plan, because they were worried about more restrictive media rules
after corporate takeovers and cross-ownership by newspaper publishers. Some media
analysts say the government is behind the move because only three right-leaning
pro-government Korean-language papers are wealthy enough to buy up the
stations. Unionized workers at three stations, the state-owned Korean
Broadcasting System (KBS), Seoul Broadcasting System, and MBC went on strike in

The situation escalated in March this year, when four
journalists at the 24-hour news channel YTN were arrested for "interfering with
business". Even though they were quickly released on bail, they are still being
prosecuted. They protested the
appointment of your former aide Ku Bon-hong to head YTN. About 58 percent of
YTN stock is owned by four state-run companies–shares the government wants to
sell off to the private sector.

It is not just broadcasters who have been subjected to
government restrictions. In early April, the government passed legislation
requiring South Korean Internet users to submit their real name and residence
registration number before using any major Web site that has more than 100,000
distinct users each day — a law first proposed by the preceding government of
President Roh Moo-hyun. The law allows people to use anonymous names when
surfing the Web or posting comments, but must supply their full identity to
Internet service providers who then have to turn it over when requested by the
government. Journalists and bloggers can no longer write without revealing
their identities to authorities.

At a press conference in Seoul
on April 22, The Korea Times reported
that Lee Won-jin, the managing director of Google Korea, was openly critical of the
new law. "We believe that the real-name requirements do not benefit users in
any way and do not contribute to creating a vibrant Internet culture", the
daily quoted Lee as saying.

Google, which owns YouTube, has managed to avoid the
restrictions by not allowing users to upload videos and comments on the
Korean-language site,
while allowing users to still upload material by setting their country
preference to other countries, Hankyeoreh
Your government's attempts to control the Internet were
handed another setback on April 20, when a Seoul court acquitted Park
Dae-sung, who blogged under the name Minerva on the locally operated site. The 31-year-old Park had
been charged with "spreading false information with the intent of harming the
public interest" in a December 29, 2008, posting saying the government had
tried to dissuade local bankers from buying U.S. dollars, a change in official
policy. Your government denied the story and sought an 18-month sentence. Park was
widely read after many of his financial predictions, mostly negative, turned
out to be accurate.

We are also concerned that a law that criminalizes slander
with a jail term not to exceed two years and a 10 million won (US$7,890) fine
is still pending in the National Assembly. While slander is a serious charge,
it should not be criminalized and should be dealt with in civil courts. In many
countries criminal defamation serves to stifle free speech and the open
_expression of ideas, and is used to silence outspoken critics of those in

South Korean journalists continue to tell of us harassment
and threats of prosecution when they travel to Afghanistan,
Iraq, or Somalia without
prior permission from the Foreign Ministry. Last year, your government
criminalised such travel with possible punishment for violating the law of up
to one year in prison or a fine of up to 3 million won (US$2,300). While we
understand your government's concerns for the safety of its citizens, such laws
for journalists are onerous. Your government must balance its concern
between security and the right of journalists to pursue a story wherever it
will take them.

All of these actions are a step backward for South Korea. We
call on you to ensure that journalists are able to travel without restriction and
work without fear of losing their jobs or going to jail as political
retribution. We look forward to your response to these pressing issues.

Joel Simon
Executive Director