"Please refrain from asking questions that were not coordinated in advance."
A campaigner for leading presidential candidate Moon Jae-in posted this message Tuesday in an online chat room the campaign team is running to communicate with foreign journalists in Korea.
The campaign official referred to an encounter in which an unidentified foreign reporter approached Moon and asked a question while on the campaign trail in Seoul a day earlier. The camp said Moon's security could be at risk if this kind of thing happens.
The official posted another provocative message Wednesday. He said if such incidents occur again, he would have no choice but to reveal the names of violators, and "control" them with other measures.
His attitude agitated many reporters.
"If security was a problem, the camp should have reinforced guards," a foreign journalist said. "If the reporter's question didn't make sense, the candidate should have given a reasonable answer."
For some journalists, the official's message was interpreted as "threats" or "warnings" that those who do not cooperate with his policy would be blocked from interviewing Moon.
His behavior triggered protest from the Seoul Foreign Correspondents' Club and Russian outlet Sputnik ran a story about the camp's high-handed media policy.
The campaign official finally apologized for his behavior Friday, saying the postings were his own decision and had nothing to do with the campaign team.
The May 9 presidential poll follows candlelit protests that eventually led to the removal of former President Park Geun-hye over an influence-peddling scandal. Citizens had powered months-long demonstrations, braving the cold and snow, fed up with her top-down management style and closed mind.
Park was notorious for staging press conferences with prepared questions. During the past four years, the nation's ranking on the World Press Freedom Index plunged from 50th in 2012 to 70th in 2016. In 2006, before conservative President Lee Myung-bak took office, it was ranked 31st.
Koreans thirst for a president who can talk with citizens casually and reporters want a president they can pitch questions to rather than have predetermined answers thrown back at them. To have a new leader who can truly communicate with people and discuss their own views with them, broadcasters have organized U.S.-style stand-up debates, without references, for the first time in election history here.
Moon has vowed to work at Gwanghwamun, central Seoul, if elected, instead of the secretive presidential palace. "I will share a glass of soju ― Korean alcohol ― with citizens on my way home," he said. Surrounded by aides only allowing "coordinated questions," can he really do so?
Moon has advocated for journalists fired over reports critical of conservative governments. "Among many old evils to be swept up in society, we should urgently clean up the evils in journalism," he said during the March 21 televised debate on MBC. "Many public broadcasters have collapsed, including MBC."
His message encouraged unvoiced journalists and blacklisted artists, and some of them have declared their support for the top liberal contender. Anyone running for the presidency, as well as their aides, should not forget citizens' desires for democracy behind the ongoing presidential race.