Lee Dong-kwan’s 98 days directing attacks on Korea’s free press

Posted on : 2023-12-04 17:02 KST Modified on : 2023-12-04 17:02 KST
The former chairperson of the Korea Communications Commission has resigned — here, we take a look at his short yet controversial stint as head of the state broadcasting watchdog
Lee Dong-kwan, the former chairperson of the Korea Communications Commission, presides over a meeting of the commission on Nov. 29. (Shin So-young/The Hankyoreh)
Lee Dong-kwan, the former chairperson of the Korea Communications Commission, presides over a meeting of the commission on Nov. 29. (Shin So-young/The Hankyoreh)

Appointed by President Yoon Suk-yeol on Aug. 25, Lee Dong-kwan, the recently ousted chair of the Korea Communications Commission (KCC), oversaw the reshuffling of the boards of directors of public broadcasters and pressured media outlets critical of the current administration under the policy of cracking down on “fake news,” which earned him the nickname of the “architect” of the administration’s attacks on the press as he drew backlash from various outlets and the opposition party.

Lee was formally accused of criminal abuse of authority only 22 days after his appointment, the first attempt to table a motion for his impeachment took place on his 77 days after being named KCC head, and he finally resigned 99 days after being appointed.

The phrase “illegal two-person system” has come to define the last three months of Lee’s time as chair of the broadcasting watchdog.

The most recent impeachment motion, which was reported to the National Assembly’s plenary session on Nov. 30 but was automatically dropped upon Lee’s resignation, cited the fact that he had been forcing through major decisions with his vice chairperson, Lee Sang-in.

Such actions go against the purpose of the KCC, which requires the five standing members of the commission to make decisions through consensus.

From his appointment on Aug. 28 through Nov. 29, Lee deliberated and voted on 36 items in such two-person meetings. For items to pass, the KCC requires the consent of a majority of all incumbent members, but in those two-person meetings, Lee interpreted the unanimous opinion of the two people present to be just as good as receiving the affirmative vote from three out of five people.

This is unprecedented. Since its establishment in 2008, there was a period of 48 days in 2017 in which the commission only had two standing members in office, but no decisions were made during this time.

In this way, Lee reshuffled the board of directors of public broadcasters, recommending one director (Lee Dong-wook) for the Korea Broadcasting System (KBS), one director (Kim Sung-geun) for the Foundation for Broadcast Culture, two directors (Kang Kyu-hyung and Shin Dong-ho) for the Educational Broadcasting System (EBS), and one auditor (Choi Ki-hwa).

A court ordered a stay of execution on the KCC’s dismissal of Kim Ki-joong from his position on the board of the Foundation of Broadcast Culture, and dismissed an appeal made by the KCC against Kwon Tae-sun, the chairperson of the foundation’s board who had also been facing dismissal.

Lee also clashed with the media, calling for the “eradication of fake news.” On Sept. 4, he called for a “one strike” rule for fake news and launched a task force two days later. He went on to say that he would scrutinize the fact-checking systems of terrestrial broadcasters and comprehensive programming channels, and demanded that broadcasters that referred to Shin Hak-lim’s interview of Kim Man-bae for Newstapa send information explaining the reasoning behind such reporting. In response, the National Union of Media Workers filed a complaint against Lee with the Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials.

“Even if I quit, my post will be filled with like-minded people,” Lee told the JoongAng newspaper in an interview on Nov. 9, ahead of a second impeachment attempt after the failure of the first.

“The train of media normalization will continue to run,” he said as he met with reporters on Friday to announce his resignation.

“The idea that there is a need for a state power to control the media hearkens back to the days of Chun Doo-hwan,” Yoon Chang-hyun, the head of the National Union of Media Workers, told the Hankyoreh on Sunday.

“Through Lee’s stint as the chair of the KCC, the public now understands the underlying motives of the Yoon administration. Without a complete overhaul, no matter who they put forward to be the new chairperson, the administration will face the same kind of resistance,” the union president added.

By Park Kang-su, staff reporter

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

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