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Newspaper Executives Appear in South Korean Court - 2001-08-17

South Korean prosecutors are seeking arrest warrants for five prominent newspaper owners and executives suspected of large scale tax evasion and embezzlement. Among the five media owners and executives listed in the arrest warrants are the heads of South Korea's two largest newspapers, Chosun Ilbo and Dong-A-Ilbo. Government prosecutors are also seeking the arrest of the former vice president of Dong-A-Ilbo, the controlling shareholder of Kookmin Ilbo, and the former president of the Korea Daily News.

All five men appeared in Seoul District Court earlier Friday for questioning over allegations that they evaded a total of almost $5 million in corporate and inheritance taxes since 1995. Prosecutors added embezzlement charges for three of the men alleging that they spent nearly $4 million of their company money for personal benefit.

The prosecutors actions come at the end of a government investigation. The probe concluded that 23 leading media organizations had evaded more than a billion dollars in taxes. They were subsequently fined almost $390 million.

The media-targeted investigations are stirring concerns about the freedom of the press in South Korea. Newspaper editors and opposition members say the government's action is a blatant attempt by President Kim Dae-jung to intimidate, if not silence, his critics in the media ahead of elections next year. Both Chosun Ilbo and Dong-A-Ilbo have been highly critical of Mr. Kim's engagement policy with communist North Korea and his attempts to reform the country's economy.

Political observer Scott Snyder in Seoul says the timing of the probe against the media has also aroused public suspicion. "There is distrust of the government in pursuing this type of investigation that's more punitive and less concerned with corporate standards of behavior and accountability," he said.

President Kim insists the media tax probe and criminal investigations are not politically motivated and has vowed to continue cracking down on corporate crimes and wrongdoings.

If convicted, the five media moguls could face prison terms of five years to life.