BY CHANCE DORLAND
In the last decade, South Korea has experienced a significant loss of press freedom. While in 2006 Reporters Without Borders ranked South Korea the 31st best nation (out of 161) for press freedom around the world, in less than 10 years, the ROK’s ranking had tumbled, nearly doubling its earlier rank. In 2005, Freedom House described South Korea as “free” but within a decade had downgraded that score to “partly free.” To justify these changes, by 2015 both international organizations had cited issues such as the suppression of reports concerning the former Park Geun-hye administration, with Freedom House specifically noting a “chilling effect on working journalists” due to the government's reliance on the country’s National Security Law. However, as of the completion of the research contained in this article, none of the examples or rankings given by either group had mentioned media coverage of LGBTQ or women’s issues.
South Korea has lagged behind in these areas compared to many other democratic nations around the world. Media coverage of neither LGBTQ or women’s issues in the ROK appears to have been specifically researched. This study expands on the existing body of knowledge on South Korean press freedom by focusing solely on these issues.
The choice to focus on media censorship of LGBTQ and women’s issues was also influenced by the difficulties I have faced in the ROK. As a media worker who has reported for both South Korean radio stations and magazines, I have experienced more restrictions on the stories I report in the ROK than in my home country (the United States) and other international markets where I have worked. While reporting for both private companies and government-funded media entities, against my professional judgment I have been forced to emphasize certain aspects of stories, have been instructed that I “cannot” report on topics or events deemed “too controversial,” and have often been lied to when making enquiries as to why these limitations exist. And, while I was censored while reporting on many different subjects, LGBTQ issues have particularly stood out—as well as certain stories pertaining to women, prostitution and forced sexual slavery during World War II.
In late 2015 and early 2016, I interviewed eight media workers active in South Korea via Skype audio chat for periods of 30 to 60 minutes. Despite differences in demographics, language ability, prior media experience, and the type of work performed, all interviewees reported being censored or being aware of censorship of LGBTQ or women’s issues with more reporting of censorship for the former. While multiple interviewees said both LGBTQ and women’s issues are influenced by the agenda of media companies and efforts to make South Korea look “good” to the outside world, LGBTQ issues were said to be subject to additional pressures from religious, political and educational influences. Stories about women’s issues were not so affected.
“Jieun,” a South Korean citizen who studied abroad but has worked in media there for the past five years, claimed that, while she has never been censored at her newspaper, the censorship other reporters face is because the “majority” of South Koreans don’t understand “human rights or LGBTQ rights because they don’t learn it in school.” She also noted that “political figures and members of government ministries … don’t want to be affiliated with LGBTQ individuals because it could ruin their careers.”
“Harry,” an ethnic Korean media worker (with foreign citizenship) and four years of South Korean media experience, reported specific instances of censorship and says there is “almost no freedom to report on anything positive about the LGBTQ community.” While working for a radio station, at one time “Harry” was asked by his producer “why are you always trying to push the gay agenda … are you gay?” On another occasion, while “Harry’s” producer described his pitch to interview the foreign pastor of a church in Seoul that welcomed gay members as “a good story,” after completing the interview and editing the audio into a finished report, the producer turned down the story with the justification that “this is just saying it’s great to be gay and this is not the message we want to put out on [our station].”
Gender discrimination was also prevalent as both LGBTQ and women’s issues were reportedly censored due to a prevalence of male decision-makers who are less likely to assign or support stories for either topic. “Donggyu,” a South Korean citizen with more than 14 years of media experience with newspapers, TV and radio said that “women in the newsroom are powerless compared to men.” Despite the fact that “80-90% of applicants for reporters these days are women” those who “get promoted and become CEOs or other important positions are all pretty much males.”
“Kristine,” a foreign media worker with more than six years of experience working for South Korean newspapers and news agencies, also reported censorship due to gender inequality with one particular example showing the depth of sexism at her company:
A while back there was a rape story of a Saenuri party member, and as I was editing the story, I thought our version was missing a lot of information that was in other reports. I brought it up with the male desk editor but he laughed and said, “Only women care about these stories.” He just got promoted and is now in charge of the entire news department.
“Rachel,” a foreign media worker with more than three years of experience working for South Korean newspapers, also reported censorship due to male-dominated newsrooms and company culture, reporting that “most of these media organizations are made up of middle- aged South Korean men who probably don’t consider the LGBTQ community.”
In addition to “Jieun,” “Mary,” a foreigner media worker with three years of experience in English-language magazine publishing in South Korea, also said she had never been censored while reporting either LGBTQ or women’s issues. Using the example of writing an article about sex workers, “Mary” said that while for her “censorship was more about making sure what I was saying was objective,” her situation was likely not the norm as “working for an English magazine is probably a lot different than a Korean newspaper or a Korean magazine as our readership only reaches so far.”
Self-censorship was only mentioned in the context of LGBTQ issues. “Martin,” a foreign media worker who had no experience before coming to South Korea but has since worked in radio and TV for more than three years, reported that while doing entertainment reports for a radio station, his producer told him that he was not allowed to mention if a celebrity was “a gay or bisexual/trans person.” For example, while reporting on Elton John, the report could contain info regarding some new happening with the artist but had to do so without any mention that Elton John was a gay man. “Martin” said this and other censorship he has experienced was “more to do with self-censorship” by his producer rather than any specific rule, noting that in South Korean media “you don’t want to be an outlier or be too controversial.” As a result, “Martin” says South Korean journalists and producers “don’t want to rock the boat.”
While issues of money (from either the government or advertisers) and the attitudes of coworkers were most often cited as the reason for stories to be censored, funding-based censorship was more prevalent for LGBTQ coverage than women's issues. “Rachel,” a foreign newspaper and magazine worker, thought that “women’s issues are less sensitive to advertising pressure unless you’re talking about how women are treated at a certain company that might be an advertiser” and noted that after her company hired a new managing editor, they “started to cover women’s issues more critically versus the older Korean male in charge before who really didn’t give a shit.”
“Donggyu” placed the most emphasis on money for how both LGBTQ and women’s issues were selected for news coverage, reporting that reporting standards are “due largely to government revenue and [large corporate] sponsors as the media themselves ... are not effective advertising platforms,” noting that media companies in effect generate income “from deceiving the public or providing biased information that favors the government or [corporations], so the only way to practically run media entities in Korea is to suppress freedom of speech.” However, “Donggyu” notes such a system has created free speech opportunities because other media entities “have to build a brand of serving the public interest in order to keep their advertising and funding … which gives legitimacy for the company to do other things.”
While how well media workers spoke or read Korean seems to have no effect on censorship in either area, not having a permanent visa was reported to have both positive and negative effects. As an ethnic Korean, “Harry” has a permanent visa and does not need to be sponsored by a company to earn money in South Korea. However, that may not always be beneficial, as he reports that while having a visa means an easier job search, “if they go to the trouble of sponsoring you and getting you a visa they’ll probably keep you until the visa runs out rather than just firing” someone possessing their own visa.
However, “Kristine” disagrees. According to her experiences, being a media worker without a permanent visa has “definitely” limited her ability to fight censorship concerning LGBTQ and women’s issues:
Foreign workers are on sponsored visas, so companies can just not renew their visa in order to get rid of troublemakers. As a result, I’m at the mercy of the company and can’t push too hard or fight back too much. If they don’t like you they have no problems with dropping you. I’ve lost two previous jobs here in Korea because of visa issues, and one time I was only told my employer wasn’t renewing my contract just two weeks before my visa expired. If I had a permanent visa, I could probably raise a lot of hell. But the fact that my livelihood is dependent on that visa, it’s a risk I can’t take.
“Kevin,” a foreign media worker with 11 years of experience in publishing and newspapers, says that while in the past not having a permanent visa has not affected his ability to produce stories, he does “worry” about his visa status now should he “return to blogging about more political issues.” In addition to working for media companies, “Kevin” has also maintained a blog while living in South Korea, and he has different concerns for writing on his blog than working for a media company as the “current administration” (referring to the Park Geun-hye government that was in power at the time of his interview) as well as certain electronic firms “scare” him:
Media companies can deal with shit from the government because they have money and legal departments, but it’s different for a blogger who can’t defend himself. If I get sued I’ll either get destroyed or deported. So, I have to be more careful about what I say than they do. If the government goes after a major company ... people will be all over the streets ... but, if they toss out a foreign blogger, who is going to give a shit?
Overall, interviewees were more optimistic about the future of media coverage for LGBTQ issues than for women’s issues, but respondents were generally optimistic about both. Nearly all of those interviewed felt that reporting on LGBTQ issues was “getting better” while half of all respondents declined to say women’s issues were “getting better.” More information on these and other responses, as well as demographic information for each interviewee, is available from the author of this report.
While responses showed an overwhelming presence of censorship on LGBTQ and women’s issues, the press freedom of each media worker varied greatly. Yet, censorship due to the dominance of male decision makers, ongoing norms of the media industry and an interest in reporting news that makes money, were most often cited. Using “gatekeeper theory,” such responses seem to point to a prevalence of influence stemming from both “routines or practices of work” and the “organizational level” present in South Korean media companies rather than “individual workers” or direct pressure from laws or government officials. However, further research is needed to justify such conclusions.
As South Korea continues to expand its power in the world community, it is important to maintain high standards and allow media workers the press freedom that is required to properly do their jobs. Self-censorship is a real factor to be considered, especially concerning social areas where the ROK lags behind many of its democratic peers. But it’s also unlikely the issues described in this article are unique to South Korea and may be suitable for broader discussions of press freedom, and how to increase it, in other Asian countries and nations around the world.
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