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South Korea: Broadcasters’ Battle for Fair Journalism Continues

In South Korea, an indefinite strike by broadcasters has continued for almost five months in the nation's largest TV network, MBC. MBC journalists and producers are urging the company president to step down, accusing him of incapacitating investigative new programs that criticize the government, by firing or reprimanding reporters and producers.

Pressure for resignation

Numerous people from various fields have joined the cause and a mass scale petition is going on to gather one million signatures to pressure the president to resign. However, MBC leadership made another unpopular decision and laid off two senior workers for no specific reason on June 20, 2012, inciting another public backlash.

Since Kim Jae-Chul became the president in 2010, 8 people have been fired [ko] and disciplinary action has been taken against 117 people. The labor union's Twitter account @saveourmbc, tweeted [ko] about the laid off workers:

김재철이 해고한 방송인만 8명.전두환 이후 최고의 언론학살입니다.최승호PD는 한국의 시사다큐를 이끌어온 거장입니다. 박성제 기자 역시 수많은 특종을 해 온 중진기자구요. 김재철은 구체적인 해고사유도 없이 이 인재들을 해고했습니다.

Broadcasters fired by Kim Jae-chul [the company president] have totalled eight people now. This is the worst assault on free press since the Chun Doo-hwan era [Chun is the nation's ex-president, notorious for oppressing press and activists and directing a massacre back in the 1980s]. The fired producer Choi Seung-Ho is a maestro, a leading figure in the nation's news documentary field and journalist Park Sung-Je is also a senior journalist who has covered various exclusive stories. Kim Jae-Chul fired these talented people for no specific reason.

@earnkyun tweeted [ko]:

[...]김재철 사장의 언론대학살 이제 멈춰야 합니다!!언론이 마땅히 가져야할 비판과 감시의 기능을 스스로 포기한 김재철, 당신이야말로 해고 1순위입니다!

President Kim Jae-Chul's massacre on the press should stop now! Kim, who voluntarily relinquished the press’ criticism and monitoring function– you should be fired first.

Many mocked the MBC leadership's excuse that the lay-off was in aid of ‘company innovation'. @tsbre tweeted [ko]:

유능한 사원해고가 혁신인가? 공원배회하다 더위먹었나? RT @hyunseok_Lee: 20일 임원회의에서 김재철 사장은 “앞으로의 50년을 위해 혁신과 개혁은 계속돼야 한다”고 강조했다고 한다. 최승호 PD와 박성제 기자를 해고한 날이다.

How it is an innovation to fire talented employees? Have they have a touch of sun while wandering around the park (in hot weather)? RT : In a board meeting on June 20, Kim Jae-Chul emphasized that “For the future and next 50 years of the company, we should continue innovation and revolution”. And that same day, he fired producer Choi Seung-Ho and journalist Park Sung-Je.

@glebbangzip tweeted [ko] about those two workers’ accomplishments, reminding people that the fired producer had played a leading role in the PD Notebook, the network's signature investigative news program that quite often criticized the current government and unearthed frauds committed by powerful people and organizations.

Intensifying conflict

MBC labor union workers are voicing their concern over the intensifying conflict. @hoyah35 tweeted a photo [ko] of union workers’ protest against the lay-off. Among its 1,600 employees, over 800 people have joined the protest [ko] and to fill the hole, MBC has hired about 60 new employees, mostly contract workers. Despite the leadership's claim that they are very close to ‘normalizing the situation', with most of their talent out of the office, their news rating has plummeted over the month.

@saveourmbc tweeted [ko] about a significant drop in quality and rating of the news program:

김재철과 그 일당들! 방송만 나간다고 정상화가 아닙니다. RT @mbcjwy: MBC 뉴스데스크 시청률 2.9%! 친정부 낙하산사장 아래 비판을 두려워하는 간부들, 영혼없는 앵무새 시용기자들과 보도영상이 뭔지도 모르는 계약직VJ들의 당연한 성적표!

I say this to Kim Jae-Chul and his entourage! Merely airing shows on scheduled times does not mean that the situation has returned to normal. RT @mbcjwy: MBC news desk's rating only scored 2.9 percent! It is a natural consequence caused by the company's board members who, led by the company president, fear voicing criticism, soulless reporters who [merely read the scripts] like a parrot and contract video journalists who have no clue about video journalism.

Twitter has been used as a channel for people show their support to broadcasters on strike. Many users have uploaded a photo of themselves with the petition webpage next to them. The strike's petition web page [ko] was set up to facilitate online signature gathering to pressure the president to resign.

This recent YouTube video posted by MBC's labor union shows citizens from various places signing the petition:

One of South Korea's influential Twitter users, Park Dae-Yong (@biguse), tweeted various citizens’ remarks made during the off-line signature gathering event. One tweet [ko] read:

“PD수첩 제보했다가 방송앞두고 김재철 사장이 막아서 방송 못나갔다”-MBC사장구속촉구서명시민

One citizen who signed for the petition calling for MBC president's arrest said “I reported on one thing to the PD Notebook, but that piece was not aired because President Kim Jae-Chul blocked it from broadcasting.”

Numerous comments, such as this tweet [ko], said they miss watching Infinite Challenge, one highly popular comedy show widely loved by young Koreans for over seven years. The show went on an indefinite hiatus as its producer joined the strike:

“무한도전 보고 싶어요”-MBC김재철사장구속촉구서명시민

“I really want to watch Infinite Challenge” – said by a citizen who signed the petition calling for the arrest of President Kim Jae-chul.

Welcome news

While broadcasters struggle in this uphill battle for fair journalism, welcome news was heard on the second week of June that the arrest warrants filed against the labor union leadership had been acquitted. Another key Twitter user @dogsul, tweeted [ko] after the court decision was made:

“업무방해죄 성립여부 다퉈볼 소지있고 파업 종결은 어느 한쪽의 노력만으로 되는 것이 아니다. 증거 인멸 및 도주의 우려도 없다” 법원이 밝힌 MBC 노조 집행부 영장 재기각 사유. [...]

This is the court's reason to acquit once more the warrant request filed against the labor union leadership members: “Charges against on them about the obstruction of work is disputable. And not through only one side's effort a strike can end [to paraphrase the sentence, it would read 'Not only one side is to blame for the strike. The leadership and labor union both are responsible for the current situation']. And there are no concerns about them committing destruction of evidence and trying an escape.

@saveourmbc tweeted [ko]:

이제 경찰과 검찰은 MBC 노동조합 괴롭히기는 단념하시고, 김재철에 대한 구속영장이나 청구하시길!!

Now the police and prosecutor's office should stop harassing the MBC labor union and start working on filing an arrest warrant for Kim Jae-Chul!

Many people, including fellow broadcasters and journalists, have actively joined the force. Twenty four hour cable news channel YTN‘s union worker (@ytnmania), welcomed the court's decision via Twitter, calling the result an ‘inevitable conclusion'. Notable one-man media outlet Mediamongu tweeted [ko] about one weathercaster turning down a job offer from MBC since she didn't want to work in a place where Kim Jae-Chul is still seated as president.

Wiki Tree consolidated tweets by a movie director (@kimjhogwangsoo), who refused to be interviewed by an MBC journalist as a sign of support for the strike, despite needing to promote his new movie.

The Korean Association for Communication and Information Studies has released a statement [ko] lashing out at the company's president. The statement quotes a source saying that Kim was appointed to the position for being an ‘obedient’ person, and that investigative programs which revealed uncomfortable truths and monitored powerful figures have either been incapacitated or shut down under his rule.

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