News in Review; Hong's Arrest, Freedom of Press

Article excerpt

The prosecution's arrest of JoongAng Ilbo president Hong Seok-hyun on a host of tax evasion and malfeasance charges touched off an all-out confrontation between the Kim Dae-jung administration and the vernacular daily, which is now backed by the opposition camp.

Since Hong's arrest, the paper has vehemently attacked the government for its anti-JoongAng Ilbo campaign which it calls a``vendetta'' for the paper's siding with the Grand National Party candidate Lee Hoi-chang in the 1997 presidential election and for its resistance against the governing camp's reported attempt to tame the press.

The daily, which competes with the Chosun Ilbo in claiming the largest readership in the nation's newspaper market, is running a series of front-page articles on episodes relating to the alleged misconduct of deputies to President Kim, including Culture-Tourism Minister and former presidential spokesman Park Jie-won, and incumbent presidential press secretary Park Joon-young.

The government dismissed the JoongAng's claims as groundless, saying Hong was arrested purely because he evaded paying taxes and violated the law.

It even sent letters to the International Press Institute (IPI) and the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) rebuking their handling of Hong's tax evasion case and their misguided perception linking Hong's arrest to the alleged press-taming bid. Earlier the international media associations lodged official protests with President Kim for his administration's alleged attempt to stifle press freedom, which the ruling camp claimed was abetted by JoongAng.

In self-defense at a National Assembly hearing Monday, Minister Park, the alleged main culprit in the ruling camp's attempt to gag the press, denied the stories in the JoongAng Ilbo, saying: ``I had only protested against some reports and pleaded for their rectification to the newspaper when I was the presidential spokesman. But never did I pressure it to change or remove an article.''

Park even said that ``it is not the government which suppresses the press, but it is the press which suppresses the government.''

His claims have yet to be verified as the JoongAng tells a totally different story, such as his attempts to meddle in the appointments of editor-in-chief, managing editor and political editor.

Their verification does not seem to be very difficult as JoongAng staffers have claimed to have recorded telephone conversations with the former presidential spokesman.

If Park is found out to have lied, he must resign and face legal punishment for committing perjury at a House hearing.

On JoongAng's ``sudden'' crusade for press freedom, most civic organizations, which have long called for overall media reforms, generally voiced their disapproval, questioning why the paper took issue with the government's alleged press-taming plot only after the arrest of its president.

The Citizens Coalition for Economic Justice issued a statement Monday refuting JoongAng's claim that Hong's arrest was a government``witch hunt.'' The CCEJ insisted that ``those involved in corruption and irregularities be strictly dealt with by the law regardless of their social status.''

Other civic groups, including the Citizens Alliance for Media Reform, said JoongAng's campaign for freedom of the press is unpersuasive in light of ``its proven record of seeking its growth through collusion with the powers-that-be during past administrations.''

At the same time, the civic organizations call for a strict probe into the alleged press-taming operations by some presidential aides and their punishment if the allegations turn out to be true.

There are many heated debates among netizens on the Hong case and the general consensus is that there should be no ``sanctuary'' in applying the measure of law, be the offenders owners of newspaper companies or other influential figures of our society. …