The Korea Herald


Bugging scandal hits politics, journalism

By Song Sangho

Published : July 13, 2011 - 20:46

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State broadcaster KBS denies bugging allegations, calls probe threat to press freedom

Allegations of bugging involving the state-run broadcaster KBS have sparked criticism over “unethical journalism,” with others denouncing the ongoing investigation into the claims as an infringement on press freedom.

The suspicion is that on June 23, a 33-year-old KBS reporter, surnamed Jang, bugged a closed-door meeting of the main opposition Democratic Party in which its key members discussed strategies against the move to raise the broadcaster’s viewing fees.
Rep. Han Sun-kyo of the ruling Grand National Party arrives at Incheon International Airport, Wednesday, after his trip to Europe.  (Yonhap News) Rep. Han Sun-kyo of the ruling Grand National Party arrives at Incheon International Airport, Wednesday, after his trip to Europe.  (Yonhap News)

The DP made eavesdropping allegations right after Rep. Han Sun-kyo of the Grand National Party disclosed what was discussed at the secret meeting during a general session of the National Assembly’s culture and broadcasting committee on June 24.

The DP filed a complaint with the police on June 26. The police raided Jang’s house and confiscated his laptop, mobile phone and other items as evidence last Friday.

The police later found that the computer and mobile phone were of no use for their inquiry as Jang began using a new cell phone on June 29 and a new laptop on June 30. Jang says he lost his old computer and phone accidentally.

The broadcaster now claims that a “third person” associated with the DP helped it obtain what was discussed at the meeting, stressing that it could not identify the source to protect him or her.

KBS has denounced the investigation as an “affront to the public broadcaster and a serious threat to press freedom,” emphasizing that it had never directed any of its press staff to bug the meeting. It also said that it plans to take legal action.

Although the probe is ongoing, critics warned that media organizations that abuse their power could face grave consequences as evidenced by the recent furor surrounding a popular British newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

Murdoch closed the News of the World, a 168-year-old British Sunday tabloid, during snowballing allegations of widespread phone hacking and other illegal activities. The paper is purported to have hacked into the voicemail messages of some 4,000 people including a 13-year-old murder victim.

“To make bugging excusable as a journalistic action, it has to have a critical, urgent purpose that could significantly benefit the public interest. But it is hard to say the meeting on the viewing fees is related to public interests,” Kim Seo-joong, mass media professor at Sungkonghoe University, told The Korea Herald.

“KBS is the very party whose interests are at stake on the issue. If it turns out that KBS was really involved in the bugging, it is tantamount to its acknowledgement that it sought to maximize its own interests by utilizing journalism.”

Kim also stressed that the power of a media company stems from support and trust from its viewers or readers.

“The power of journalism comes and is justified when it was used for the enhancement of our society. It comes not from investment by an individual leader but from the relationship with those who consume its content,” he said.

Kim Chun-sik, journalism professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, stressed that it was important for media to cover all stories in an ethical manner.

“Although an investigation is ongoing, bugging or wire-tapping runs afoul of the law and is unethical. There could be controversy over whether the bugging was for public interest or for the public’s right to know,” Kim said.

Meanwhile, Rep. Han, another figure at the center of the scandal, arrived here on Wednesday from his trip to Europe. Police have told him to appear at Yeongdeungpo Police Station in Seoul for questioning by Friday.

The DP filed a complaint against Han with the police on July 1, alleging that he contravened the law protecting the secrecy of communications. Han is also suspected of being implicated in the alleged bugging.

By Song Sang-ho (