Comment: Distorted view of the media during elections in South Korea

South Korean presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung (centre) of the ruling Democratic Party during an election campaign at a market in Sejong. — AFP

THE South Korean media, like most around the world, has been struggling to cope with a slew of challenges in recent years, such as declining ad revenue, shrinking subscriber numbers and weakening influence in an era of social media.

For the embattled media, there is one more critical thing to overcome in the country: the sheer hostility of the two main presidential candidates toward the media.

Resentment against journalists and media outlets is nothing new in South Korea. On social media, a number of people do not hesitate to call reporters “giregi”, meaning “garbage reporter” in Korean. But the level of hostility is touching a new high in the presidential campaign ahead of the March 9 elections.

Last Sunday, several reporters covering the presidential campaign were attacked by supporters of Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea. Reporters were hit on the head and threatened by rally participants in Anyang, Gyeonggi Province.

Nothing can justify violence targeting journalists, regardless of whether they are covering stump speeches or other topics. What is deeply regrettable is that the egregious behaviour of some supporters came shortly after Lee slammed the media.

“The media keeps criticising me all the time,” Lee told his supporters. “The media exaggerates (negative) things about me, while minimising things about the other candidate.”

Lee referred to a series of critical reports on his alleged involvement in a development project in Daejang-dong, Seongnam, where he was a mayor, and the scandal involving his wife, Kim Hye-kyung, who issued an apology over her use of public services for personal errands.

Lee’s frustrations, expressed in front of his ardent supporters, touched off a wave of emotional outbursts, which led to the violent acts amid shouts of “giregi.”

Online attacks on reporters and media companies are plain to see, but it is rare that such resentment actually results in physical violence.

Presidential candidates, of course, are free to criticise reports that depict their policies or past actions negatively, but they should not make groundless claims that their weaker performances in opinion polls are a direct result of negative media reports.

Any physical violence incited by such unilateral and biased views of the candidates is bound to undermine the very foundation of democracy and the freedom of the press.

Let’s face the facts.

Media outlets did not make up the scandal surrounding the land development in Daejang-dong; it was Lee himself who oversaw the scandal in the first place.

Lee also has to show concrete evidence about “unfair” reports before making a claim that could potentially drive his supporters to violence against reporters who are simply doing their job.

As the dispute intensified, Lee’s election committee issued a statement, “We will take stern measures against any physical acts toward the press or behaviour blocking their reporting.”

Lee’s rival, Yoon Suk-yeol of the main opposition People Power Party, holds an equally distorted view about the media. Early this month, Yoon argued that “a powerful system” is needed to “bankrupt an entire media company” when a single news article goes awry.

Last year, when the ruling party attempted to revise the media arbitration law, Yoon criticised the proposed amendment, calling it a “press-muzzling law”. Now, he appears to have a different view.

Local media outlets and journalists should engage in soul-searching to address the deepening mistrust and hatred toward the media at large.

Presidential candidates and other politicians also should make an extra effort to help safeguard the freedom of the press by showing a mature attitude toward the press and preventing violence at campaign rallies. – The Korea Herald/Asia News Network

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