Autumn, '97

"The Press as Censorate"

By David I. Steinberg
The Asia Foundation

People in power tend to become isolated, and often lose balance and reality. They are surrounded by groups that want to serve the interests of the leader and often use that status for their own ends or to push special interests. In large bureaucracies, such as national governments of either a modern or traditional nature, the problems of governance are multiple, and since time is limited, access to the leadership thus must be restricted.

The staff at either the Blue or White Houses, [Korea and the U.S. respectively] for example, filter who gets to see the chief executive, for what purposes, and for how long. Such a group becomes by its nature self-protective of the leader, the program, and even of the staff itself. Loyalty is viewed as critical, and in the United States this is often referred to in a sports analogy of 'being a team player,' with the chief executive as the captain of the team who calls the plays. Although loyalty is a primary virtue in such organizations, there are essential differences and potential conflicts - loyalties to individuals or to principles, to the immediate or the long-term perceived good. In both cases, the former too often takes precedence over the latter in bureaucratic life.

This problem of time, access, and exposure to diverse views is not new, although the complexity of the modern world and its global dangers may make the problems more acute. Some of our traditional institutions may have been better adapted to deal with this problem in their own day than ours are today. The Chinese, and the Koreans emulating the Chinese model, developed an institution that was critical to how power was executed, and institutionally provided some modest exposure to different views within the general Confucian ideological configuration. This was the Imperial Censorate. It was composed of officials who had access to the Emperor, and whose function was to tell the leader when things were right or wrong, when he was being led astray, and when plans or actions were likely to have deleterious effects or be contrary to moral or established principles.

Did this institution work? Within cultural norms it was important. In part it provided a moral, partial brake on unlimited power. Some censors lost their lives in protesting royal follies, but institutionally their role was critical.

In modern dictatorships, there is often no opportunity for dissenting voices to be heard. Hierarchy, fear, and controlled information suppress diversity of opinion. Even when public open feedback is theoretically built into an authoritarian system it may not work. The ultimate failure of the Burma Socialist Programme Party was attributed to this problem--people did not report actual conditions because of fear and the leadership became more isolated, according to a member of its Central Committee.

Who, then, today provides that brake on power, that sense of reality, the admonition of actions, and the warnings of perils to come? What institutions exist to perform this vital function? They are and it is, in fact, the press. The press has become, perhaps better has the potential for becoming, the equivalent of the Imperial Chinese Censorate which tells the emperor that he is wrong, and that his actions are unconscionable. If the press does not fulfill this function, the country is the poorer for it, and in greater danger. The press is to provide transparency to the processes of decision-making and to the decisions themselves, because bureaucracies generally abhor light, even when upright and responsible.

Without the press, the modern emperor - whether dictator or elected president - is insulated, encapsulated in a cocoon of many who are either sycophants or who are truly awed by those in power. They do not directly question the leader, sometimes because protocol inhibits it, sometimes because of social ostracism. Even in democracies, this may be difficult. The staff may believe they are protecting the leader, but it is a short term service and a long range disservice both to the individual and to the state. So if the Imperial Censorate is gone, and if the press is not free to perform this role, then the arrogance associated with power will grow, reinforced by a supportive wrapping that inflates egos and hides reality.

Of course, the press has other functions in a democracy. State policies must be based on an informed public opinion, and under that system of government neither domestic nor foreign policies and the administration that has fostered them can long endure unless those educated citizens approve. The Vietnam War policy in the United States is an example. Their access to policy in the United States is an example. Their access to information on the problems and the policies that they address are largely received through the media and the press.

The press is thus the link between those governing and those governed. Elections are episodic - waiting for two or more years to inform your leaders that they are wrong or corrupt or inadequate is inappropriately slow and cumbersome. Through the press, however, the reaction can be almost immediate. This is not the best of all possible press worlds, to paraphrase Voltaire's Dr. Pangloss. Anywhere, at any time, the press is likely to be of mixed probity, reputation, thoroughness, and intelligence. Yet if there is freedom and press competition, and if the population has reasonable levels of education, then there is likely to be some influence on those in power. The population in a democracy can be stirred up by the press, excited to war or to benevolence, so there are responsibilities that the press has, and which they often do not fulfill. But the mechanisms, however, imperfect, are important.

The origins of the Korean press and its history are interesting, even instructive, but of less significance than other factors when considering its role in the democratization process. What is more important and far more basic are the concepts of information in Korea and its nature and uses. Information is power in any society, but especially in ones that have traditional, if residual, elements toward power. I would argue that Korea has exhibited very traditional attitudes toward power in spite of the modernization and democratization processes. Power is not generally shared because it is considered limited, as if it were a cake. In some other societies, it is thought of as infinite, so sharing does not diminish one's portion. But in Korea, to share it individually or institutionally is to lose all or part of it. Power is a zero-sum game in Korea. This leads to the personalization of power in Korea, which in turn fosters factionalism. Information as an element of p! ower is carefully guarded, and when given out it must be done discretely and carefully in style to suite those in control, and where myongbun (moral justification) is an important component.

Thus authoritarian governments want to control the press, and even governments that are procedurally democratic want to influence it. In a Tom Stoppard play, a dictator defines a 'relatively free press' as one controlled by his relatives. In Korea, where distance between states and society is significantly narrow, the tendency to attempt to control is greater. Why otherwise have a Ministry of Information for internal dissemination of news?

Because information is power, and the press deals with information and molds opinions, it is obviously important. It is also important because the press represents in Korea an extension of the literati, with all the status that this term implies here. The individuals, and indeed the written word, are far more important here than in many other societies.

Certainly, today the press in Korea is the most free that it ever has been in all of Korean history. But that freedom is not absolute (no freedoms really are), and there are a variety of restrictions on the press today. Some are self-imposed. The press is generally part of what may be called the establishment, and there is a good deal of self-censorship, where the press knows the social and political limits beyond which it would be imprudent to go. There is informal government influence and network through personal and other ties, although the days of KCIA personnel sitting in editorial offices are long past. There are other indirect influences as well, the chaebol own four of the major papers, and since 90 percent of all press revenue is from advertising, and the chaebol are the major advertisers, perhaps a certain circumspection is given in those cases. The National Security Law and its sweeping implications for certain types of dissent is another element in institutional prudence, even if it is enforced with bureaucratic discretion. The press in Korea is divided into two unequal parts: the Korean and the English language press. It is, of course, the Korean language press that is vital. The English language press, and I write a weekly column for one of them, is peripheral. All English press publications are pale imitations of their Korean counterparts, and their material is tepid, perhaps because there is a nationalistic reluctance to air directly Korea's problems before foreigners. But foreigners need the English press much less than they once did, as other sources of information have proliferated and are easily accessible through many different media.

For the English-language press to play any significant role in Korea, beyond a very modest English-language teaching and practice mechanism, it must be pioneering and adventurous - attributes that are often not looked with favor in many circles in the field of information. One might argue that as globalization has grown in Korea, the English language press has withered. To be of influence, it must be both important and different from the Korean press.

The Korean language press is where the emphasis must be placed. There have been evident improvements in some of the papers, and the scope of the press has broadened, and both developments are welcome. There are still, however many problems. There is, I am told by reporters, basically no investigative journalism of any serious matter. Reporters are not normally assigned to spend significant periods researching and examining a major story. Aside from individual columnists, many of the papers sound very much alike. And there are few avenues for reporters to blossom into columnists. There are a number, but the press relies on the academic community to supply periodic pieces, which in many ways is a very good thing, but it inadvertently undercuts the development of the reportorial groups.

The problems of the press are not those of talent. There are a wide range of journalism and mass communication departments of universities and institutes throughout Korea. There are now available so many opportunities for overseas study by journalists through the increasing number of Korean foundations and other institutions that support such activities that virtually anyone with talent should be able to go overseas.

There are two kinds of issues. The first, and more easily resolved, is that of careers. The press often do not hire the graduates of press programs. When in the press, there are very few opportunities to develop career interests and specialization in certain fields, because the press staff are rotated, which may make for breadth, but certainly does not encourage depth. There are very few journalists who can adequately represent the Korean press at international conferences, and few who could contribute as peers to international discussion of critical issues, such as the environment or the military or science topics.

We know the past problems with the press. Freedom has sometimes been associated with license and lack of responsibility. Elements of the press have been corrupted. But even if these problems did not exist, there are needs to ensure that professional standards are maintained and insisted on by the press management. That does not yet seem evident. Why the Korean press has copied the Japanese model of group coverage of government institutions that make the stories read alike and discourage innovative reporting is a question.

More importantly, however, is the issue of press ethics, for ethics influences how the freedom of the press is used or misused. We all know about chongi (the envelope of money), the press equivalent of dok-kap (the price of rice cakes); that is, funds provided to oil the social and professional wheels, not for any specific favors, and which are considered under Korean law to be quite legal.

The real issue of the press in the process of Korean democratization, then, is ethics. For the press to uncover wrongdoing, for editorials to complain about mismanagement or corruption of government, are necessary, but they are not sufficient. We have learned that when we look to any government to set standards anywhere in the world we are often disappointed. If the press is to provide transparency, it cannot itself be opaque. The role of the press in the democratic process is critical as a general rule. In Korea, it is equally, if not more, important. If the press as literati are to maintain the respect that is accepted in this society, a status that is probably higher than in the West, then they must prove to the Korean people that they deserve this role.

Overall, the press has not, I believe, led the process of democratization in Korea, although there have been particular publications and editors that at certain points were courageous, and stood up for democracy. But in general the press has participated in, but not been in the forefront, of the struggle. One might characterize the Korean press as cautiously reformist. If we consider the present problems Korea is facing, they were not uncovered by the press in its investigative reporting, but the press has picked up the stories and carried them extensively.

The press is vital to democratization anywhere. It is especially important in Korea. There has been progress, but more needs to be done. .

[Dr. David Steinberg is the Korea representative of the Asia Foundation
and former professor at Georgetown University.]

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