Just six months into his presidential term, press freedom advocates are expressing concern about South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol's treatment of the media, including the sidelining of journalists from a major South Korean news outlet over coverage he did not like.
Last week, Yoon’s office prevented reporters from MBC, one of South Korea’s largest broadcasters, from riding the president’s plane on an overseas trip.
The justification, according to Yoon officials, was displeasure with the outlet’s "biased" reporting, which they claimed was hurting the national interest.
Many journalists in Korea were already skeptical of Yoon, a conservative political outsider with a non-traditional communications style. Although his frequent impromptu press conferences make him more accessible to journalists than his predecessors, Yoon and the people around him often are more combative, sometimes in surprisingly blunt ways.
During the election, Yoon’s wife, Kim Keon-hee, vowed to “jail all reporters” who criticized her husband if he were to win, according to recordings and transcripts of private phone calls with a reporter from the left-leaning Voice of Seoul YouTube news channel. The comments were made public in January after a lengthy court battle.
In a public statement last month, the Culture Ministry issued a “grave warning” to the organizers of a little-known contest held at the Bucheon International Comics Festival on the outskirts of Seoul. Their alleged offense: awarding second prize to a high school student who depicted Yoon as the children’s cartoon character Thomas the Tank Engine.
Many domestic and international observers fear that Yoon’s actions, especially the MBC ban, could have a chilling effect and threaten the country’s reputation for being one of Asia’s freest democracies.
Beh Lih Yi, Asia program coordinator at the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, said Yoon’s targeting of MBC “is worrying for press freedom, as well as the environment for domestic and foreign media based in the country.”
“It sends a clear signal to other media outlets that they could be the next target if they carry unfavorable coverage of President Yoon,” Beh said in a written statement to VOA.
In response to a VOA question about whether the ban set a precedent for sidelining media outlets moving forward, the South Korean presidential office said the decision "should be seen as a minimum measure, since we believe that the fake news damaged our national interest."
"It is our understanding that not a single democratic country in the world gives protection toward fake news as part of freedom of the press," the presidential office statement added.
Hot mic incident
The dispute leading to the plane ban began in September, after Yoon was caught on a hot mic using seemingly vulgar language after meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden on the sidelines of a visit to the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
MBC and other many mainstream South Korean broadcasters aired the remarks with captions indicating that Yoon was referring to Biden and U.S. lawmakers.
Yoon and his conservative allies expressed concerns that the incident may damage South Korea’s alliance with the United States, and insisted the president was referring to South Korean politicians. Yoon’s administration responded by taking aim at MBC, which first aired the remarks.
As well as the plane ban, MBC has said that Yoon’s office sent a letter demanding to know the editorial process that led to the broadcast, and his ruling People Power Party filed a complaint with prosecutors, accusing the outlet's staff of defamation.
Yoon and his staff linked the decision to their displeasure with the hot mic incident, accusing the outlet of harming national interests and inciting conflict with friendly countries, according to a text message from the presidential official that was published by MBC.
MBC said the decision represented “a new level of media repression.”
A joint statement by five Korean journalist associations and trade unions vowed "full-scale war” with the government unless Yoon reversed the ban. Even many conservative outlets criticized Yoon’s decision, a notable step in a country with a highly polarized media environment.
In recent years, MBC’s newsroom has taken on a more left-leaning reputation and clashed with conservative governments.
MBC runs on advertising revenue, but its largest shareholder is the Foundation of Broadcast Culture, a public organization headed by a government appointee.
That makes the situation more complicated — especially considering government and societal expectations surrounding state-linked outlets.
Such news organizations are often perceived by the public as subservient to the government in power, said Hans Schattle, a professor of political science at Seoul’s Yonsei University.
"News organizations should simply be reporting the unvarnished truth to the public and let the chips fall where they may," Schattle said. "And [government leaders should] take the hits when they come. That’s what they do in a democracy."
Despite those tensions, observers say it is problematic that the government is indicating that it intends to punish a media outlet over coverage it disputes.
Yoon is drawing a "straight clear line" connecting MBC’s coverage and the ban, said Darcie Draudt, a Korea specialist and postdoctoral researcher at the Princeton School of Public & International Affairs.
“It’s pretty egregious,” Draudt told VOA. “It’s easy to say that it’s retribution against unfavorable press.”
Despite the criticism, Yoon continued to attack MBC. On Friday, he called the outlet’s coverage “malicious,” saying the ban was necessary in order to preserve national security and “protect the constitution.”
"President Yoon has stressed that he is always open to criticism from the press and the people," Yoon’s office told VOA. As evidence, it cited Yoon’s impromptu press conferences.
However, on Monday Yoon suspended the so-called “doorstepping” sessions. The decision followed a heated public argument on Friday between a presidential aide and an MBC reporter who had asked a question in a way that Yoon’s staff considered inappropriate.
South Korean officials have also defended their response to the cartoon controversy. The contest organizer, they point out, received government funding. Government support could be pulled if the contest attracted public criticism, they said.
The cartoon festival incident prompted newspaper headlines comparing Yoon to South Korea’s last conservative president, Park Geun-hye, who was removed from office after a series of corruption scandals, including the formation of a blacklist that attempted to silence writers, actors, and others deemed critical of her administration.
Park is the daughter of Park Chung-hee, South Korea’s late military strongman, whose government in the 1960s and 70s practiced a severe form of media censorship.
Though South Korea emerged from military rule in the 1980s, many of its presidents since then have been accused of trying to muzzle the country’s notoriously freewheeling and politicized press.
Press freedom advocates strongly criticized South Korea’s last president, the liberal Moon Jae-in, over his attempts to pass legislation intended to fight "fake news." The law, which did not pass, would have significantly expanded the ability of courts to punish reporters and media outlets deemed to have intentionally published false information.
Many press freedom advocates are urging Yoon, who took office in May, to reverse the approach he has taken so far.
“President Yoon has placed much emphasis on the value of freedom since assuming office,” said CPJ’s Beh. “If he truly believes in freedom, he must accept criticism and understand that as an elected official, his actions will be scrutinized by the public, including journalists.”
Lee Juhyun contributed to this report.
Editor's Note: The tenth paragraph of this article has been updated to include the presidential office's acknowledgement of VOA's request for comment.