8 November 2004


RSF welcomes plan to repeal National Security Law but calls for withdrawal of draft media law

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(RSF/IFEX) - RSF has welcomed a legislative proposal to repeal the National Security Law, a move which would benefit press freedom. But the organisation has called for the withdrawal of a draft media law that could endanger free enterprise in the printed press.

Both reform bills, which the ruling Uri Party plans to put before Parliament, "will have significant consequences for press freedom," RSF said. The organisation called on Uri Party Chairman Lee Bu Young to shelve the media reform law. While welcoming the repeal of the National Security Law, RSF expressed concern about attempts by the majority to use the law to control the printed press sector.

"This law, intended to curb the influence of the three major conservative dailies, looks more like ideological revenge than an attempt to regulate the news sector," RSF Secretary-General Robert Ménard said in his letter to Lee Bu Young.

RSF is aware that a media monopoly is not desirable for pluralism of news and information, but South Koreans have a wide range of news sources available to them in addition to the traditional dailies.

On 15 October 2004, the Uri Party, which has 152 seats in the 299-seat Parliament, put forward four draft laws, two of which directly affect press freedom. The party wants to have the bills adopted before the end of the current parliamentary session in mid-December.

The media reform bill stipulates that no newspaper can control more than 30 percent of the market and that the three leading dailies combined cannot control more than 60 percent of the market. It also limits the space each paper can give over to advertising to 50 percent. Transgressors will be fined 20 million wons (approx. US$18,000; 14,000 euros).

All press groups would also have to provide the Culture and Tourism Ministry with complete details of their financial situation, circulation figures and financial structure.

The three conservative dailies - "Chosun Ilbo", "Dong-a Ilbo" and "JoongAng Ilbo" - together account for 70 percent of the daily written press market in South Korea. "Chosun Ilbo" alone has more than a 30 percent market share.

The draft law also obliges press groups to set up committees to protect readers' rights, allowing them to challenge media outlets if they consider their coverage to be less than "objective".

The ruling party also wants to establish a single distribution system for the dailies, to end the fierce competition between the papers for subscribers.

Belligerent statements by top officials accompanied the announcement of the proposed law. Prime Minister Lee Hae-chan said, "I can forgive the military regimes of [former presidents] Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo, but I cannot forgive the betrayals of 'Chosun Ilbo' and 'Dong-a Ilbo'."

One Uri Party leader said the law would "help create a sound media market to reflect public opinion." In February 2002, President Roh Moo-hyun's government attempted to push through a law to reduce the conservative dailies' influence.

The Uri Party is also planning to repeal the National Security Law, which makes it a crime to publish news that is favourable to the Communist regime in North Korea. President Roh Moo-hyun proposed that some articles of the law be put into the Criminal Code, to protect the country from espionage on behalf of North Korea.

The last journalist to be jailed under the National Security Law was Choi Chin-sop, who was imprisoned from 1992 to 1995 (see IFEX alerts of 20 November and 23 February 1995). Far-left publications are still censored or harassed for carrying articles considered supportive of the Pyongyang regime.

RSF has previously spoken out against the National Security Law, which dates from 1948. In its 2004 report, Amnesty International wrote that "the National Security Law has often been used arbitrarily against people for exercising the rights to freedom of expression and association." As of late August, 14 people were still imprisoned under this law.

On 27 October, the opposition Grand National Party said it would refer the draft laws to the Constitutional Court. Some conservative deputies threatened to physically block the adoption of the bills.


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