Labor and the Korean Media
August 6, 2012
The Korean media has been roiled by a series of strikes and labor campaigns since President Lee Myung Bak appointed or promoted close personal associates as CEOs for three major broadcast companies.
The main strikes against KBS, MBC and YTN were above all born of resistance against the control of broadcast company policy by President Lee Myung Bak.
The media is considered absolutely critical for the functioning of democracy and such attempt by the president to seize control of the public media was viewed as an indication of the profound weaknesses in Korean democracy. At the same time, the strikes also indicate the degree of resistance among workers to the political culture of Korea which is generally dominated by Korea’s elites.
The labor disputes for the most part have ended, although the issues are not completely resolved. There were strikes at five major media companies, KBS, MBC, YTN, Yonhap News and Kookmin Newspaper since the start of 2012. In the case of YTN, a final agreement between management and labor has still not been reached. Nevertheless, the strike itself no longer in effect at YTN.
The strike against Kookmin Newspaper was not so much concerned with government interference in the media, but rather an expression of dissatisfaction with the management.
In the case of Yonhap News, the strike also was not as concerned about government interference in reporting, but rather a result of the profound discontent of reporters with manner in which the company is administered.
The appointment of a close personal friend of the President Lee Myung Bak as president of MBC who then held sway over the company like a feudal lord drew the ire of the media union, thus leading to the strike.
On January 30, 2012, the media workers union gathered at MBC to protest with the slogan “Return MBC to the people” a very interesting slogan in that it assumes that such semi-public institutions should have a responsibility to the citizens who own them. The strike was not really about demands for higher wages or benefits for workers. It was based on principle and would go on for months until it deeply impacted MBCs production.But in the case of MBC the struggle was not carried out by intellectuals through postings on Common Dreams, but rather through a painful strike that lasted for months and impacted working people the most.
The question of balanced reporting in the media and independent, objective editorial policy was the clear cause of the strikes at KBS and YTN. In the cases of KBS and YTN, President Lee Myung Bak appointed as CEOs people had originally been his personal policy advisors. The strikes unfolded as a response to this attempt to make major news sources subject to the Blue House. In the case of YTN, after extensive protests by labor, the CEO originally appointed stepped down. The campaign thereafter focused on demands for the reinstatement of personnel who had been dismissed during the strike and labor struggles.
The CEO of KBS, Kim Inkyu, also was a personal advisor to the president, but the labor resistance was not particularly effective and he remains in office. After two years a strike was launched claiming that he was responsible for a biased report.
Although the strikes produced various successes, overall, they did not have the full impact that had been expected. Although the situation varies from one media company to another, for the most part the strikes failed to achieve the specific goals for which they were launched. The strikes called for the resignation of CEOs, but although the CEO of YTN eventually did step down, it would be hard to say that anyone was forced to resign because of the strikes.
The strikes at all five media companies were carried out by, and led by, the media labor unions within those companies. The striked were, however, carried out with the supervision and aid of the nation-wide media workers union. As a result, there was considerable influence from outside of the unions as well. The national media workers union has a clear progressive perspective, overtly supporting the opposition party and taking a hostile perspective towards the ruling conservatives in most cases.
On the surface of things, the strikes do not appear to have changed much of anything. That said, a general consensus has been reached in Korean society that acts such as appointing an advisor to the president as a CEO, or other such political acts are not acceptable.
In the national assembly as well, there is now more sensitive discussions about how impartial figures can be appointed as the CEOs of media companies. Such a change in attitude can be seen as a result of the controversy created by the strikes. Balance and accuracy has become a major topic in Korean society and a greater concern for citizens. This change in perception has been quite beneficial.
Precedents were established in Korea for resistance to efforts to suppress balanced and accurate reporting. Perceptions of protests against bias have gone from surprising and odd to natural and obvious. It would be reasonable to assume that advisors to presidents will not be so easily appointed as CEOs of public broadcast companies.