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Cablegate: Reporters Not As Welcome in Korean Ministries

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RR RUEHWEB

DE RUEHUL #1911/01 1770024
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 260024Z JUN 07
FM AMEMBASSY SEOUL
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 5190
INFO RUEHBJ/AMEMBASSY BEIJING 2704
RUEHKO/AMEMBASSY TOKYO 2816
RUEHIN/AIT TAIPEI 2010
RHHMUNA/CDR USPACOM HONOLULU HI
RUALSFJ/COMUSJAPAN YOKOTA AB JA
RHMFISS/COMUSKOREA J2 SEOUL KOR
RHMFISS/COMUSKOREA J5 SEOUL KOR
RHMFISS/COMUSKOREA SCJS SEOUL KOR
RHEHNSC/NSC WASHINGTON DC
RUEKJCS/SECDEF WASHINGTON DC//OSD/ISA/EAP//

UNCLAS SEOUL 001911

SIPDIS

SIPDIS SENSITIVE

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV PREL KS
SUBJECT: REPORTERS NOT AS WELCOME IN KOREAN MINISTRIES


-------
SUMMARY
-------

1. (U) On May 22, Korea's cabinet passed new rules that
will, unless opposition from the media and many members of
the National Assembly proves too strong, dramatically alter
the current structure of press rooms at most ministry
offices. Under the new press policy, which could be
implemented immediately, the existing 37 press rooms in
government administrative offices will be consolidated into
"combined briefing rooms" in three government complexes in
central Seoul, Gwacheon and Daejeon. The new rules will ban
journalists from being stationed in any government offices;
they will instead be offered temporary press cards to attend
news briefings. Reporters will have to rely more heavily on
personal contacts within the government to get clarification
on news stories as opposed to the current method of
approaching officials directly in the halls of the
ministries. President Roh characterized the new policy as a
way to modernize the press corps and bring it more closely in
line with other countries' stand
ards while the press cried censorship and infringement of its
constitutional rights. (NOTE: The Blue House press room and
several others will remain unchanged. MOFAT's press room
will be affected by the change. END NOTE.). End Summary.

-----------------
SOURCE OF DISCORD
-----------------

2. (SBU) In March, President Roh ordered a study of press
briefing systems around the world. "A handful of reporters
just sit around press rooms and collude, setting the agenda
on how articles should be written," Roh said at the time the
order was issued. The order came shortly after Roh's
national health plan was widely criticized in the media as a
ploy to garner support in an election year. Most people
agree that there are problems with the Korean press, although
there is less agreement on the nature and solution to the
problems. In a war against the conservative major press --
often critical of Roh's "radical" policies -- the president
has been trying to give more power to the so-called "minor"
media journalists, including more progressive internet media
outlets. After the initial flurry of complaints appeared in
the press, Roh challenged the media to a public debate on the
issue, which took place on June 17. Although it was
anticipated as a showdown between Roh and the conservative
media, the atten
dees were not a representative gathering. Roh commented
during the two-hour televised debate that, "The journalists
were wrongly chosen. You all come from well-behaved
organizations."

----------------
NEW PRESS POLICY
----------------

3. (SBU) The results of Roh's study of other countries'
press rooms were announced on May 22 in the form of a new
press policy that includes shutting of 37 press rooms in
government ministries, to be replaced by "combined briefing
rooms" in three government complexes in central Seoul,
Gwacheon and Daejeon. Journalists, instead of having offices
in the buildings, will be offered temporary press cards to
attend news briefings. Reporters will have to rely more
heavily on personal contacts within the government to get
clarification on news stories as opposed to the current
method of strolling around government ministries and
questioning officials they meet.

4. (SBU) The agency responsible for the new policy, the
Government Information Agency (GIA), was unapologetic about
the new policy. Ahn Young-bae, Deputy Director of the
agency, denied any connection between the current actions and
those taken against the media during the repressive Park
Chung-hee and Chun Doo-wan regimes. Referring to the
critical headlines generated by the policy, Ahn said, "At
least we did not gag the press. Journalists will be
inconvenienced by losing their desks at the ministries. I
expect that journalists will have to run around more, but
their articles will include more viewpoints while relying
less on government-fed information." Ahn said that the
measures would make for better reporters.

5. (U) Anecdotally, it is said that Roh changed the
structure of the Blue House press office after viewing the
U.S. television drama, The West Wing, where the press is
often shown as tightly controlled and with limited access to
the White House.

--------------
MEDIA RESPONSE
--------------

6. (SBU) The Korean press responded quickly by publishing
negative headlines about the perceived limitations on their
constitutional right to information. Legal groups led by
human rights lawyers are planning to file a claim against the
government naming the public, journalists and media groups as
co-claimants. Journalists also raised the concern that
higher-ranking officials were refusing contact with
reporters, implying that a wall was being built up between
the government and the media.

7. (SBU) From the foreign media perspective, Associated
Press journalist Bert Herman told us that he did not like the
old system as it effectively shut out Western and foreign
media from the "special" briefing sessions and from the use
of the press rooms. Under the new policy, Herman said that
he was told foreign journalists will have the same access as
local journalists. While Herman was skeptical of the claim,
he said that any change to the press policy offered the
possibility of improvement over the old system.

8. (SBU) According to Media Today, up to 85.7 percent of
managing editors in 18 local media outlets are opposed to the
new plan. About 43 percent believe the previous press system
will be restored as soon as the Roh government moves out
after the December presidential election.

---------------------
POLITICIANS' RESPONSE
---------------------

9. (SBU) Opposition Party GNP Chairman, Kang Jae-sup,
quickly weighed in on behalf of his party to say they will
fight the change. "The party will do its best to invalidate
the new measure within the June National Assembly session
after examining its legal and institutional injustice. The
government will not succeed in its attempt to cover up its
misgoverning by closing down press rooms." Both of the
leading GNP presidential candidates, Lee Myung-bak and Park
Geun-hye, spoke out in opposition to the plan. Lee went so
far as to say if he were elected, he would reopen the press
rooms.

10. (SBU) Even the ruling Uri Party spokesman, Choi
Jae-sung, expressed his party's concern with the rules in the
following statement: "The government should think this over
before making a decision. We formally urge the government to
put the idea on hold." (NOTE: If the Uri Party decides to
withhold support, the plan will effectively come up against
unanimous opposition in the National Assembly as all other
parties have already declared they are against the scheme.
Even so, the executive branch can still implement the new
rule. END NOTE.).

-------
COMMENT
-------

11. (SBU) It is no secret that Roh has a strained
relationship with the press and would like to cramp their
style somewhat. At the same time, Korea's media currently
enjoys amazing access to ministries and officials. Embassy
officers often meet journalists not just in the lobbies of
ministries, but wandering the halls with apparent easy access
to senior officials. Not surprisingly, ostensibly internal
government information leaks, and quickly. Hence, the
limitations on journalists' access to government ministries
should not be seen as trampling on freedom of the press --
which Korea enjoys in abundance -- but as an effort to put in
place boundaries that are common in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Although access to the briefing sessions will be more tightly
controlled, there are no indications that the briefings will
be any less forthcoming.
VERSHBOW

© Scoop Media

 
 
 
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