Look to Latin America
By Andy Jackson
While members of Korea's National Assembly ``defend democracy" against a supposed presidential dictatorship by attacking fellow members of the legislature, the world is witnessing the creeping advance of the real thing in Latin America.
The legislation at the heart of the latest ruckus in the Korean National Assembly allows newspapers to have partial ownership of television stations. Progressives fear that the new law will pave the way for ``ChoJoongDong" (The Chosun Ilbo, JoongAng Ilbo and Dong-A Ilbo ― Korea's three largest newspapers) to take over Korea's television market, a medium that has traditionally been friendly toward the left.
Fighting over Korea's media is certainly nothing new. During the term of President Roh Moo-hyun, progressives pushed the Newspaper Law and the Press Arbitration Law in a bid to force down the market shares of the ChoJoongDong papers, presumably to the benefit of smaller, progressive newspapers. Prior to that, President Kim Dae-jung launched a campaign of tax audits against newspapers that were critical of his administration.
A free press is an essential ingredient for any liberal democracy to function properly and attempts by the government to alter the media market should always raise red flags in the minds of citizens, even if the proposed changes are benign. State control of the media is a critical step in transforming a democratic government into what is functionally a dictatorship.
However, it may be illustrative to compare the attempts of media manipulation by the last three Korean administrations with actions by a government that is in the process of transitioning from a liberal democracy to an autocracy with elections. In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez has increasingly been using government power to shut down critics in the media and support pro-government media outlets.
Last week, the Venezuelan government announced that it was reviewing the licenses of 240 private radio stations representing over a third of radio broadcasters. Tellingly, none of the 238 radio stations that are part of a pro-government network founded by Chavez in 2001 are subject to the review.
Even if the Chavez government does not go through with closing all 240 stations, the reviews will have a chilling effect on those broadcasters as well as those not currently subject to review. The international organization Committee to Protect Journalists called the move ``yet another attempt by Venezuelan authorities to expand pro-government media, control the flow of information, and suppress dissent."
All broadcast television and radio stations are already required to carry Chavez's major speeches and media appearances. New regulations will expand that requirement to include cable systems. In addition, Diosdado Cabello, the head of the government's media regulator, has declared that the government will seize control of cable systems that refuse to carry the government news network.
The fate of Radio Caracas Television (RCTV) serves as a cautionary tail for media producers who would dare tangle with Chavez. The government refused to renew RCTV's license in 2007, despite it being one of Venezuela's most popular broadcasters and having been on air for more that 53 years. The network retreated to cable, where it will be subject to the new pro-government content regulations for that medium.
There is now only one major broadcast station left that is openly critical of Chavez and it has been the target of increasingly strident government attacks. The head of the Globovision network, Guillermo Zuloaga, was charged with usury and conspiracy to commit a crime earlier this month. Judge Alicia Torres claimed that she was fired from her position after complaining about pressure to rule against Zuloaga in the case. The government has also hit Globovision with $4.2 million in fines, along with sanctions that will allow the government to shut it down before its license expires in 2015.
The intentions of Chavez and the government toward the media are clear, if for no other reason than they have been clearly and openly stated. On Jan. 8, 2007, Andres Izarra, President of Telesur (a Latin American regional news network founded by Chavez) and ex-Minister of Communication said, ``It is necessary to elaborate a new plan ... toward the communicational and informative hegemony of the state." Chavez himself has not been shy about pronouncing his desire to change the media.
Chavez's increasing suppression and control of the media is part of a larger campaign of intimidation, cronyism and constitutional changes designed to reduce political opposition and elections to mere window dressing for what is functionally a dictatorship.
Chavez's ``21st century socialism" is spreading across Latin America with presidents Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua in various stages of rule changes designed to enable them to remain in power indefinitely. Honduran President Manuel Zelaya attempted to do the same but was removed from power under orders from the Honduran Congress and Supreme Court in June.
So, while it is right for the public to be leery of government attempts to control or otherwise influence the media, nothing that presidents Lee Myung-bak, Roh Moo-hyun or Kim Dae-jung have done should earn them the ``dictator" moniker.
The real thing is much scarier.
Andy Jackson has taught courses on American government and has been writing on Korean politics and other issues for four years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.