Technology and Democracy Are a Potent Mix in S. Korea ; Web-Based News Sites Are Increasingly Shaping Public Opinion and Policy

By Watts, Jonathan | The Christian Science Monitor, January 31, 2003 | Go to article overview

Technology and Democracy Are a Potent Mix in S. Korea ; Web-Based News Sites Are Increasingly Shaping Public Opinion and Policy


Watts, Jonathan, The Christian Science Monitor


The marriage of a fledgling democracy and broadband technology has spawned a precocious new media child in South Korea that would have been unimaginable 15 years ago.

In an exhilarating two months, Web-based journalists have swung a presidential election, stirred tens of thousands of Koreans into anti-American protests, and nudged government policy on the nuclear standoff with the North.

The leading voice of this New Korea is OhmyNews, South Korea's most influential online news site. With only 40 full-time journalists, it has built up almost as big a readership and as fearsome a reputation for moving public opinion as dailies that have been established for more than half a century.

"OhmyNews is as influential as any newspaper," says a South Korea diplomat in Tokyo. "No policymaker can afford to ignore it. South Korea is changing in ways that we cannot believe ourselves."

Until 1987, South Korea was under a military dictatorship and the press was firmly under the thumb of the authorities. But huge and bloody pro-democracy demonstrations forced General Roh Tae-woo to accept direct presidential elections and freedom of expression.

Liberated from government censors, TV stations and newspapers are now routinely critical of the country's leaders. In 1997, this contributed to the first transfer of power to an opposition candidate, the former dissident Kim Dae-jung, who had once been imprisoned and sentenced to death.

Under President Kim, the young democracy received a technological boost with the spread of broadband Internet access - embraced far more quickly in South Korea than anywhere else in the world. The rigidly hierarchical society was suddenly turned on its head by the Internet, which young South Koreans turned to first for their news.

Some 67 percent of Korean households now have broadband, more than in any other country. This high-speed service means that people use the Internet more, spending an average of 1,340 minutes online per month. About 54 percent of Koreans play online games - another world record.

"The Internet is so important here," says a Western diplomat in Seoul. "This is the most online country in the world. The younger generation get all their information from the Web. Some don't even bother with TVs. They just download the programs."

Unlike the established media, the editorial policy of OhmyNews is largely decided by its 23,000 contributors - who are paid between nothing and $8 per story - and its 3 million very active readers, who can vote and comment on every published article.

In last month's presidential election, readers vetoed editorial comment by the publication's owner Oh Yeon-ho and his staff. They made their own preferences clear with thousands of contributions urging people to get out and vote for the eventual winner: Roh Moo- hyun. …

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