SEOUL — As so often, one opinion stands against another: South Korea’s opposition party has leveled an accusation against the government that by launching a tax investigation of the media it is in effect waging a war against the press. The government retorts that the tax investigation is a routine matter, and the National Tax Service is only doing its job. Many things have been said in this seemingly endless debate regarding the role of the media and its relationship with the government. One of the more shocking remarks was made by a prominent politician with presidential ambitions. This minister was quoted as telling reporters, “It is time for the politicians to wage war on the press.” I had to read this sentence several times to actually believe what I saw printed there in black on white. This is an unacceptable statement from a fundamental democratic point of view, and one must ask whether the politician was in full control of his senses when he spoke.

In the current controversy over the media, the protagonists employ the most belligerent vocabulary: It is hardly a recommendation for the quality of a political culture when the adversaries use military terms to communicate. But the debate is not about style, although I think this always plays a role. It is mainly about political substance.

It is not easy for a foreigner to comment on this matter, or to use as a benchmark in the discussion the state of media relations in so-called advanced democracies. Obviously, the standards applicable to the South Korean press are very different. In Germany, for instance, it goes without saying that all media companies pay taxes. Whenever there is the slightest cause of doubt regarding the accuracy of a fiscal declaration, again it goes without saying that the tax authorities are obliged to investigate.

“The situation is very different in Korea; you have to judge the relationship between the media and the government here in the light of past experiences,” says a friend who works for the Korea Press Foundation in Seoul. There is no question that tax audits have a miserable reputation in this country. That is not to say that tax auditors are popular in other parts of the world, but here — and one hears this over and over — audits often do not result in clear-cut legal solutions. Instead, they tend to end in some sort of financial, if not political, compromise. These compromises may well be called tradeoffs, and it is an open secret that in the past South Korean media companies were among those involved in such deals.

The picture of arbitrary political dealings with the press has been confirmed recently by none other then the former president of the republic. While in Japan, ex-President Kim Young Sam caused a stir when he said that had he disclosed the results of the media tax audit done in 1994, grave consequences would have ensued. He therefore refrained from making the information public, thus participating in a coverup of illegal practices. Kim added that he could not pretend the audit had not discovered anything at all, so he ordered the press organizations to be fined “a little.”

This truly remarkable episode, which says a lot about past relationships between the media and the Blue House, was reported extensively in the South Korean press a few days ago. The account illustrates what many, if not all, South Koreans know: that the government disregards the very laws that it is constitutionally required to safeguard. Since this is the general perception, it is little wonder that the public has only a limited trust in the government and in the rule of law.

The apprehension of the media companies regarding the government’s intentions is understandable. It is especially understandable given that the tax investigations were launched shortly after President Kim Dae Jung announced in his New Year press conference that he is considering a program of media reform. It is always problematic when governments decide to meddle with the media, even though the danger of unilateral interference in this case was alleviated by the president’s assurance that it is up to the press, the academic community, civil society and Parliament to work together on the matter.

One can only hope that this important debate will be conducted in a more responsible manner than it has been so far. To date, there have been numerous exaggerations by all sides, including the opposition party: It is unreasonable to attack the government on the sole grounds that it is conducting a tax investigation. It is equally unreasonable to defame this investigation as a scheme intended as a means of taming the press.

Saying this implies that the media are responsive to extortion. It always takes two sides for blackmail to succeed: the blackmailer and the blackmailed. A media company, or any company only responds to threats of extortion if it indeed has something to hide.

The present controversy is a good chance to get the facts on the table. Lack of transparency is one of the major deficiencies of the South Korean media system and the root of a great deal of evil. Arguably, the creation of transparency is the most important task facing all media. It is time the South Korean media came out of their shells regarding their financial status. The more candidly this exercise is conducted, the smaller the danger of the media falling prey to political schemes aimed at reducing them to partisan mouthpieces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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