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Voice of the People: An interview with the Hankyoreh

Milan Rai interviews a key speaker at the 2011 Rebellious Media Conference.

Taesun Kwon was a co-founder of South Korea’s only non-corporate national daily newspaper, the Hankyoreh, born of South Korea’s democracy movement in 1988. She is now executive editor of the paper, which has a circulation of 300,000 (South Korea has a population of 49 million). Taesun Kwon will be speaking at the Rebellious Media Conference organised by Peace News, Ceasefire, the National Union of Journalists, Red Pepper, Undercurrents, and visionOntv. Peace News interviewed Taesun Kwon by email ahead of the conference.

PN: How is the Hankyoreh different from other South Korean newspapers?

TK: There are many differences between the Hankyoreh and other newspapers in South Korea.

The first difference is the birth of the Hankyoreh. The Hankyoreh was established with the help of more than 60,000 ordinary people by over 200 ex-journalists who were forced by the military regimes of the 1970s and 1980s to leave the news media.

In short, the Hankyoreh is a precious fruit of the South Korean people’s struggle for democracy, while other major newspapers have grown through collaboration with the military dictatorial regimes. To curry favour with the military regimes, they fired reporters who asked for freedom of the press.

The second is its ownership. The Hankyoreh Media Group is owned by 60,000 or more shareholders and employees. The shareholders of the Hankyoreh are different from those of other companies. All of them share a desire for a genuinely independent newspaper and for full-fledged democracy in South Korea. Therefore, they have never complained even though the Hankyoreh has not given them any dividends since its establishment.

The third is the leadership. We elect the CEO through a direct election by all employees.

As a result, the Hankyoreh is the only newspaper independent from the political power and chaebols [the corporate conglomerates that dominate South Korean economy and society].

PN: The founding of the Hankyoreh is an inspiring story of resistance under severe repression. Could you describe the birth of the Hankyoreh? You were one of hundreds of journalists who had been fired from their newspaper companies as a result of repression by the military dictatorship. How did 200 of you come together with the idea of creating a new newspaper that challenged chaebols (major family-run conglomerates)? How did you manage to convene a conference of over 3,300 people to support the establishment of the paper? How did you manage to get 60,000 ordinary people to invest in the Hankyoreh?

TK:  Let me briefly explain the history of South Korea during 1970s and 1980s. In 1972, former President and dictator Park Chung-hee changed the Constitution in order to make himself president for life. Then, he suppressed any objections against him through various kinds of emergency decrees. He also repressed freedom of the press. However, people’s resistance against him continued to grow.

A group of journalists from several newspapers issued a declaration calling for freedom of the press and pledged not to obey the military regime. In 1975, the newspaper owners fired the journalists to kneel down to the dictator.

After President Park was assassinated, another military strongman, who took the power through the coup d’etat, forced the newspapers to expel the journalists who had fought for democracy and the free press. As a result of these two incidents, more than 500 journalists including me were forced out. But we did not give in.

We established the Association for the Democratic Free Press Movement (ADFPM) and began to publish an underground magazine in 1985. In addition, we tried to find a way to establish a genuinely independent newspaper with our own hands. In 1987, the military regime could no longer repress the Korean people’s will to form a democracy because millions of people joined in a mass demonstration to demand freedom of the press and democratization of the country.

At that time, some members of the ADFPM made a suggestion to hold a nationwide campaign to establish a newspaper independent not only from the political power, but also from chaebols. The suggestion was positively greeted by not only other ex-journalists but also by other intellectuals and activists.

Over 3,000 individuals who led the struggle for democracy voluntarily became the promoters of the newspaper. When we began the campaign in 1987, more than 60,000 people from all the walks of the society including students, teachers, workers, and homemakers got in line to donate their money with only one hope to create a fair and trustworthy newspaper.

PN: Could you describe some of the early victories and difficulties? One early triumph was the newspaper’s story in December 1988 exposing Lee Keun-Ahn, then-director of public security for Gyeonggi Province, as a former security official who had used electric torture on a number of victims. What kind of pressure and threats did the Hankyoreh endure for this and other challenges to established power?

TK: As you mentioned, we have published numerous exclusive and investigative reports disclosing the establishment’s corruption and infractions. The Lee Keun-ahn report was one of them. There have some other significant reports including the disclosure of illegal surveillance by the Military Security Agency, revealing how chaebols collected huge capital gains through land speculation and exposing the overstepping and scandals of Kim Hyun-chol, son of then-President Kim Young-sam.

These reports have had a huge influence on Korean society. For example, the report on Kim hyun-chul scandals was one of the decisive factors of the peaceful administration change by the election for the first time in South Korea’s modern history.

The establishment did not like our reports, but in contrast, the common people praise them. The established powers have used every means to repress our newspaper’s critical reports.

In 1989, the agents of the National Security Planning Agency (NSPA), presently the National Intelligence Service, raided the offices of the Hankyoreh. They arrested our editorial adviser for arranging a secret reporting trip to North Korea, which was prohibited by the national security law.

They also tried to pressure the Hankyoreh through obstructing advertising. The National Security Planning Agency (NSPA) asked business circles not to advertise in our newspaper in 1996 and 1997 during the Kim Young-sam administration as revenge for our reports covering the Kim Hyun-chul scandals.

The “advertising repression” also reappeared during the beginning of the current Lee Myung-bak administration. Some conglomerates including Samsung tried to use withdrawing advertising to tame or undermine our reports, but they have been unsuccessful.

PN: The Hankyoreh was the first newspaper to use only Hangul, the Korean alphabet, rather than a combination of Korean and Chinese characters, and it was the first newspaper to use horizontal script rather than Chinese-inspired vertical script. How important was this to the newspaper? How did readers respond to this championing of Korean culture from your very first issue?

TK: It is very important not only for democratization, but also for digitalizing newspaper printing to use Hangul, the Korean alphabet. Hangul is very easy to learn, while Chinese characters are difficult. Therefore, most less-educated people in Korea don’t know Chinese characters. So the use of Hangul was welcomed by all the ranks of people as a way to achieve democracy.

At that time, most of the books including textbooks used horizontal script while only newspapers adhered to use vertical script. Therefore, the use of horizontal script was not only a trend that we had to go with, but also a must for digitalization of the printing process.

Currently, all other Korean newspapers use Hangul exclusively, following our example.

PN: Are you familiar with the Propaganda Model of the western mass media developed by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman? How valid do you think it is – and does it apply at all to the South Korean mass media?

TK: I read Korean versions of Noam Chomsky’s ‘Necessary Illusions’ and ‘Manufacturing Consent’. I fully agree with Chomsky’s view. The propaganda model also applies well to South Korean news media.

The government and business conglomerates always try to manipulate their audience into collaboration through the established news media. Therefore, the role of an independent media organization like the Hankyoreh is becoming more and more important.

PN We are very interested in the internal workings of radical media projects. The Hankyoreh has had elections for senior positions – could you please explain how that came about, how it worked, and whether you still have elections?

TK: We have been through several experiments to find a suitable way to choose the CEO and the managing editor. At first, we formed a committee to recommend the CEO. The committee, which was composed of an equal number of people inside and outside the company, recommended one candidate of the CEO to the company who had to gain the consent of the majority of all the employees. Then, the CEO recommend two candidates for managing editor, and the reporters chose one of them by written vote.

Currently, we elect the CEO through direct election by all employees, and the CEO recommends one candidate for managing editor, who is confirmed through a yea or nay vote by reporters.

Topics: Media | Global South