Yoon Suk-yeol’s long-standing hostile relationship with free press boils over

Posted on : 2022-11-11 15:58 KST Modified on : 2022-11-11 15:58 KST
The president’s antagonistic relationship with the media dates back to the campaign trail
President Yoon Suk-yeol adjusts his mask while responding to questions from the press during his commute on Nov. 10. (Yonhap)
President Yoon Suk-yeol adjusts his mask while responding to questions from the press during his commute on Nov. 10. (Yonhap)

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s anger over broadcaster MBC’s decision to break the story about seemingly vulgar remarks caught on a hot mic has led to the unprecedented exclusion of MBC reporters from the presidential plane.

While Yoon has frequently spoken of “freedom” since being inaugurated as president and has held impromptu press conferences on his way to work to distinguish his administration from previous ones, he hasn’t hesitated to take “retaliatory executive measures” against a critical press outlet, to borrow a phrase from Justice Party leader Lee Jeong-mi. The latest move can be seen as the culmination of the hostile relationship with the press that Yoon has cultivated since his time as a presidential candidate.

Yoon’s beef with MBC goes back to a September trip to North America. MBC was the first Korean broadcaster to play a subtitled video showing Yoon using vulgar language following a 48-second chat with US President Joe Biden. That set the presidential office on the warpath, disputing the veracity of the report and openly demanding that the broadcaster account for how the report came to be.

MBC retorted that those actions amounted to “an attempt to bridle the press’s role as a public watchdog and critic.”

On Wednesday evening, two days before Yoon was scheduled to depart on a tour of Southeast Asia on Friday, the presidential office announced that it had decided to remove MBC from the press list for the presidential plane. Yoon’s office described that as an “unavoidable measure to prevent distorted and biased broadcasting.”

During a press briefing on Thursday, an official from the presidential office said it had “imposed the smallest possible limitation on reporting access given the belief that the national interest must not be harmed again.”

“We didn’t take this measure because the presidential office was criticized,” the official added.

The official added that banning a press outlet from the plane was “not an abrupt decision” and that the office had “waited until now” for MBC to issue a correction. “We made the decision after concluding that we’d given them enough time,” they said.

When reporters noted that not only MBC, but many other media outlets, had printed similar subtitles, the official stressed that MBC had led the way and primed other outlets to use the same subtitles.

That has led to criticism that the presidential office is deliberately trying to vilify MBC.

Another reason the presidential office gave for banning MBC from the plane was that the broadcaster had failed to inform viewers that it had represented first lady Kim Keon-hee with a stand-in actor in an episode of “PD Note,” an investigative journalism program. When reporters asked whether the controversy over the stand-in was related to the national interest, the official vaguely said that the episode had “clearly gone against reporting ethics for a public broadcaster.”

It’s widely thought that this unconstitutional decision — which violates the principle of free reporting by the press — could not have been made without approval from Yoon himself. When the Hankyoreh asked on Thursday about the background of the decision to keep MBC reporters off the presidential plane, an official from the presidential office said, “I don’t think we need to explain our internal decision-making process.”

But another high-ranking official in the presidential office reportedly said on Wednesday evening that there’s no chance of the MBC ban being reversed. According to a source at MBC, “That means the decision was made by Yoon.”

Yoon himself adopted a stern attitude when asked about the ban on his way to work on Thursday. “A lot of taxpayers’ money is spent on overseas trips by the president, and that’s an important aspect of the national interest,” he said.

Yoon’s dangerous attitude toward the press came to attention several times while he was still running for president. Last September, he made derogatory remarks about an online news website called Newsverse that ran an article apparently attacking him in connection with an alleged attempt to enlist the prosecution service against political enemies.

“If they’re going to run a political hit on me, it would have been nice for the issue to be raised by a credible person whom everyone trusts in a major media outlet that everyone knows about,” he said.

He specifically called out MBC and KBS as “major media outlets” at the time.

In a meeting with reporters while on the campaign trail back in February, he mentioned the need for “a robust system in which a single article can lead to the bankruptcy of an entire media organization” and also expressed his support for holding media organizations responsible for false reporting through both judicial procedures and quasi-judicial procedures, such as the Press Arbitration Commission.

While the presidential office has repeatedly described MBC’s reporting on Yoon’s hot mic moment as “fake news,” it has resorted to banning MBC reporters from the plane without taking any judicial or quasi-judicial measures itself.

An official from the presidential office would only remark that the presidential office has never filed a complaint with the Press Arbitration Commission, while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs apparently has done so.

By Seo Young-ji, staff reporter; Kim Mi-na, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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