It was a very sunny day on July 16 when 200 people gathered to attend the unveiling ceremony of the “Statue of No-Surrender-Pen” held in front of the Korea National Press Center building in Seoul. Proposed last year by the National Union of Media Workers (NUMW), the statue was funded by 120 civic society and 600 individuals who donated W140million (about US$119,000), who were all committed to uphold the value of freedom of the press in the Korean society. The inscription on the statue’s plaque says, “We cannot write the false articles in our history.”
This inscription was inspired by the life of Mr. Song Gun-Ho, a warrior of democratic journalism who always emphasized journalistic integrity. The tall and upraised pen, representing the writing of the truth, was no doubt a solemn reminder to all the participants attending the ceremony. The statue’s unveiling ceremony in July marks the capstone to the new foundation that NUMW is making to improve the state of affairs in the media sector.
Korea’s political environment has changed since the candle-light vigil demonstrations by the Korean people in 2017. This brought on some notable thawing in the labour-capital relations in the country. One of which is the media sector where the major public broadcasting companies such as KBS TV- MBC TV, EBS TV have all seen new appointments of CEOs whose resumes listed prior leadership experience with media unions or were recognised to have fought for the freedom of press earlier in their careers. Consequently, for the first time in NUMW’s history, they secured in the May of 2019 a rare sector wide Industrial Collective Bargaining Agreement with the leading companies of the sector.
Bro Oh Jung-Hun, NUMW’s President, said in his opening speech that, “Freedom of Press is the foundation of democracy and social value for ordinary people. We will remember the senior journalists who sacrificed to protect the freedom of press during the most turbulent political and social time in 1960s and 1970s under the military dictatorship which repressed the press, interfered with the editorial rights, and caused people to fear speaking up freely.”
It was during this dark period mentioned in Bro. Oh’s speech, that on 24 October1974, the Donga Daily Newspaper reporters released a Declaration on Freedom of Press Action. This courageous declaration provided a real jolt to many journalists of the time who had feared to write articles based on facts. Soon after, the Chosun Daily Newspaper, Joongang Daily Newspaper and Hankook Daily Newspaper all joined in the Declaration movement.
Just one day before the Declaration announcement, the Donga Daily Newspaper published an article reporting on the Seoul National University Students demonstration. This article led to Mr. Song-Gun-Ho, editor of Donga Daily Newspaper, being arrested by Korea’s Central Intelligence Agency on 23 October 1974. This incident sparked the fuse to fight against the dictatorship and to keep the freedom of press for all journalists who had been criticized by the society for their silence to the increasing threats of freedom and democracy for years.
The backlash against the Donga Daily was severe. It suffered a 90% of advertisement cancellation due to political pressures and faced serious financial deficit for seven months from July 1975 to January 1976. During this time, 49 reporters were dismissed and 84 reporters were served Indefinite Time-Suspension on Work without salary payment. To support the Donga Daily Newspaper, many ordinary people, students, salaried workers, mom & pop shop owners, women workers in the factory, religious group and civic society voluntarily donated various small amounts to keep filling the advertisement columns of Donga Daily Newspaper and encouraged them to continue the fight.
Mr. Kim Jong-Cheol, now in his seventies, and the leader of Donga Daily Newspaper Dismissed Journalists Committee recalled his vivid memory of fight, “Today I am very impressed that the fruits of our fights are still growing and evolving. I hope the young generation will not forget the truth that the – Freedom of Press will make the freedom for all.”
Bro Oh Jung-Hun, NUMW president said, “The credibility of the news reporting and trust in the media has reached new lows. It implies that the crisis of credibility has worsened.”
He also observed that when discussing the crisis of the media, there is an absence in the mentioning of a citizen’s role. The media industry has seen the acceleration in marketization and commercialization and private ownership of media companies has expanded tremendously. But citizens’ rights to participation and public values of media have shrunk markedly. There is nothing for citizens’ rights of users in the OTT and IPTV industry.
To tackle this glaring gap, as part of its policy developing actions, the NUMW held a press conference on 23 July to launch “Citizen Network for Media Reform” together with major civic groups in the NUMW conference room, at the Korea Press Center.
The new network is planning to formulate a basic proposal to be submitted to the expected National Commission of Media Reform that will be launched next year. This idea of a media reform commission was made earlier in May 2017, when the NUMW had exchanged a Policy MOU with Moon Jae-In, then Presidential Candidate of the Democratic Party, pledging to establish National Commission for Media Reform.
NUMW will also send a research delegation on media policy to Germany, France and Belgium in September 2019. UNI MEI and IFJ are expected to assist in arranging meetings for the delegation. The NUMW’s delegation will focus on finding out the working conditions and media policy in each study country. It is expected the findings from this research trip will form the basis of NUMW’s future policy agenda.
UNI Apro Regional Secretary, Christopher Ng, hailed the successes made by NUMW, he said, “It is breath taking to see what NUMW has accomplished so far within a short period of time, and after a long hard struggle in very difficult circumstances. I congratulate NUMW for its achievements. I am very impressed with the momentum that NUMW has initiated and sincerely hope that it will grow ever stronger. Only a strong NUMW can ensure that all media workers have a better chance at achieving decent work in the coming future.”
Mr. Johannes Studinger, Head of UNI MEI, also conveyed his congratulations to NUMW, saying, “I salute the leadership and members of NUMW for their incredible efforts that have finally bore fruit. Their work and struggle to uphold freedom of the press and media freedoms for all are very instrumental for the Korean society as a whole, and is an inspiring example to others. We at UNI MEI look forward to continuing support their growth to ensure their fresh achievements can go further.”