SEOUL — Give the South Korean news media mixed grades in their first real test since President Roh Tae Woo promised in 1987 to "democratize" the country and allow freedom of the press.
On one hand, it was a newcomer to the nation's media that recently made the key revelation exposing the country's biggest bribery scandal in years.
On the other hand, the affair showed that many of South Korea's journalists were as guilty as the politicians and officials of taking payoffs. And reporting on the scandal faded at just about the time suggestions were surfacing that Roh himself might have been involved.
The scandal involved illicit payments of more than $1.4 million by the owner of the Hanbo business conglomerate to obtain official permission to build an apartment complex in a greenbelt. Nine people, including five members of the National Assembly and an aide to Roh, were arrested and indicted in the affair. Prosecutors say 80 journalists also received payments, although how much they received has not been revealed, and they have not been named or charged.
Mixed grades or not, the Hanbo affair has thrown an unaccustomed spotlight on the practices of this country's changing press.
Gone are the days when a single phone call could squelch any news story and when government officials issued regular "guidelines" to the media. No longer do TV news programs devote the first seven or eight minutes of their telecasts to the daily activities of the president. Nor do newspapers print what cynics came to call "the royal box"--a daily page-one story on the head of state. Both were regular features during President Chun Doo Hwan's eight years of authoritarian rule from 1980-88.
Today, citizens are exposed to a much broader spectrum of news on Communist North Korea and better coverage of labor issues. Activities of dissidents and opposition political leaders, who were treated as "non-persons" under Chun, also are covered widely.
It's now common here for the results of strongly negative opinion polls on government performance to be published--something unthinkable during Chun's rule.
The latest Gallup-Korea poll, published in January in cooperation with the newspaper Chosun Ilbo, found that 54.2% of South Koreans believed Roh was "not doing well" in running the country. Only 33% said he was "doing well" or "fairly well."
Roh's ruling Democratic Liberal Party fared even worse. Although it holds 72% of the seats in the National Assembly, fewer than 17% of respondents in the Gallup-Chosun Ilbo poll rated the party favorably. And that was before the Hanbo scandal.
Kim Dae Jung's opposition Party for Peace and Democracy won 18.5% support in the poll.
The loosening of control has also produced a remarkable proliferation of media outlets since Roh's 1987 democratization pledge.
The number of newspapers and magazines in Seoul has doubled, and the nationwide increase is even greater. Newspapers are also twice the number of pages they used to be, since a government limit on pages was abolished. Newspapers now average 16 pages a day.
The end of a government-sanctioned advertising cartel that distributed ads evenly among the old, established newspapers precipitated a battle for revenue that is fattening the sheep and starving the goats among newspapers and magazines.
Advertisers have to wait in line to place ads in the No. 1 newspaper, Chosun Ilbo, a morning paper, or No. 2 Dong-A Ilbo, an afternoon daily. But "among the 83 general newspapers that must report their financial balances, only 10 reported that they were breaking even or showing a profit last year," said Lee Duk Joo, director of the Information Ministry's media division.
Only Chosun Ilbo, Dong-A Ilbo and the newly established Segye Ilbo, run by Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, print more than 1 million copies a day. And Segye Ilbo distributes many of its copies free, Lee said.
No reliable circulation figures are available in South Korea, he added. Chosun Ilbo's circulation is estimated at nearly 2 million, while Dong-A Ilbo is believed to sell more than 1.5 million copies. Both of the two biggest newspapers circulate mainly in Seoul, a city of 10 million people.
Television, which remains the only segment of the media still subject to licensing and therefore the segment most susceptible to government influence, nevertheless exhibits "vastly improved" freedom to broadcast opinions, according to Park Kwon Sang, a former editor of Dong-A Ilbo purged by Chun in 1980.
"They even report what the Dong-A doesn't publish," Park said.
Seven new broadcast media have been authorized, including the country's first purely private TV network, which is to begin operating in October. The amount of television time devoted to news has not changed and the government still forbids telecasting between 10 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. and again between midnight and 6 a.m. But commentary, panel discussions and interviews on news topics have increased dramatically.