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MBC reporters barred from presidential jet for ASEAN trip

Rare move prompts criticism, protests from media, experts

In front of the presidential office in Yongsan-gu, Seoul, Thursday afternoon, ahead of the departure of President Yoon Suk-yeol for a tour of Southeast Asia, media groups including the Korean Federation of Press Unions, the Journalists Association of Korea and the Korea Broadcasting Journalist Association hold an emergency press conference regarding the administration's refusal to carry MBC reporters on the presidential plane. (Yonhap)
In front of the presidential office in Yongsan-gu, Seoul, Thursday afternoon, ahead of the departure of President Yoon Suk-yeol for a tour of Southeast Asia, media groups including the Korean Federation of Press Unions, the Journalists Association of Korea and the Korea Broadcasting Journalist Association hold an emergency press conference regarding the administration's refusal to carry MBC reporters on the presidential plane. (Yonhap)

The presidential office on Wednesday night told MBC reporters that they would not be allowed to board the presidential plane, two days before President Yoon Seok-yeol's trip to the summits of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and Group of 20, sparking intense criticism from media and opposition parties.

“The boarding of the presidential plane has been providing convenience for reporting on diplomatic and security issues,” read a text message released by MBC late Wednesday night sent by the presidential office. “Considering that MBC's distorted and biased reports related to diplomacy have been repeated recently, (we) decided not to provide this convenience for coverage.”

The decision comes after President Yoon Suk-yeol became embroiled in controversy when he was caught by a hot mic incident that was relayed by MBC in September during his trip to New York. In the video, Yoon appears to be saying the word "Biden," which the presidential office denied, and using vulgar language to say that it would be embarrassing if an unspecified issue is not cleared by a parliament. It remains undetermined to which congressional body -- US or South Korean -- Yoon was referring. The presidential office sent an official letter to MBC President Park Sung-je asking for clarification on the matter. MBC immediately hit back, releasing its own statement.

When asked by a reporter the reason a specific media company had been excluded from boarding at a regular morning press briefing on Thursday morning, Yoon said: “The reason the president travels abroad spending many people's tax money is because important national interests are at stake.”

“It is the same for you journalists. (We) provide the convenience of reporting for diplomatic and security issues. I hope you can accept it in that sense.”

Yoon is set to attend the ASEAN summit in Cambodia and then leave for Bali, Indonesia, on Monday to join the G-20 summit. Each media company pays for the full cost of taking part in overseas presidential trips, including accommodations and airfare for the presidential jet, although payment for this trip was not due until 6 p.m. Thursday.

"This measure clearly restricts the media's coverage," MBC responded. “If boarding the presidential jet is not permitted, MBC reporters will definitely cover the scene through alternative means.”

The presidential office’s decision sparked strong criticism from media and opposition parties.

Five large press organizations, including the Korean Federation of Press Unions, the Journalists Association of Korea and the Korea Broadcasting Journalist Association, released a joint statement Monday morning.

The presidential office’s restricting of coverage by specific media outlets and refusing them entry on the presidential plane based on their critical coverage is unprecedented press suppression, and is a clear challenge to the freedom of the press as stipulated by the Constitution, the statement said.

“The presidential plane is operated with taxpayers' money, and each media company pays for the coverage at its own expense,” it said. “Media coverage and monitoring of the president’s duties to the public is the basis of democracy.”

It is astonishing to see the anachronistic perception of the presidential office, which mistakenly portrays boarding the presidential jet as a favor bestowed by the president, the statement added.

The presidential office press corps released a joint statement on Thursday afternoon, expressing its deep regret at the presidential office’s unilateral measure of excluding a specific media company, which caused great confusion among journalists in the group.

They also expressed concern that similar measures could be followed for other media outlets in the future due to this situation. “Any restrictions on media coverage that may infringe on the public's right to know should be discussed in advance with reporters on a reasonable basis, and we will firmly oppose any measures taken by unilateral notification.”

Opposition parties raised critical voices against the presidential office for excluding MBC.

Ahn Ho-young, senior spokesperson for the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea, said in a commentary, "It is truly tragic that the president, who should protect the Constitution, is taking the lead and undermining the constitutional value of freedom of the press."

“President Yoon is not even qualified to mention the national interest. The person who harms the national interest is President Yoon,” he said.

The Justice Party took a similar position. Party leader Lee Jung-mi called it a disgraceful retaliation and suppression of the press.

Kang Youn-gon, a professor at the School of Media and Communication at Chung-Ang University, said the decision "shows how the current government perceives the media reports and their duties.”

“Journalists should also show their stance on the matter,” he said, citing the case of conflicts between CNN and the White House in the US. “There are fights between conservative and liberal media, but they unite when (the government) tries to restrict the media.”

When a liberal-leaning CNN correspondent was barred from a White House press event in 2018 under the former President Donald Trump, conservative media competitor Fox News said it “stands in strong solidarity with CNN for the right to full access … as part of a free and unfettered press” and “stands firmly with CNN.”

Another media expert, Shin Ho-chang, a professor at Sogang University’s school of communication, expressed concerns that the decision would demoralize journalists covering the trip from on board the presidential plane.

“Now, journalists on planes will not be able to easily report diplomatic achievements,” he said. “This is the most undesirable media relations strategy.”

Political critics say the decision is additionally strategically unhelpful because the controversy over abusive language, which has already largely passed, is being brought to the fore again to create further controversy.

“There is a so-called grammar of politics. But the current presidential office often goes beyond that,” said political commentator Park Chang-hwan.

“The reason for this seems to be that President Yoon and his key aides from the prosecution have the idea that they should not be pushed back on,” he said. “This makes them ignore the repercussions of this political decision.”

Although it is rare for the presidential office to disallow a reporter from accompanying a president’s overseas trip, this is not the first time the government has sought to exert control over media in South Korea.

During the former President Moon Jae-in administration, the Senior Civil Servant Corruption Investigation unit was found to have inquired into journalists’ correspondence data. During the previous Lee Myung-bak administration as well, it was later discovered that the National Intelligence Service had established and implemented a specific plan aimed at controlling the media centered on public broadcasting.

The presidential office's decision to deny carriage for the MBC reporter has similarities to previous acts of media suppression, such as blacklisting and inspections of journalists, said Ryoo Woong-jae, a professor at Hanyang University's department of media and communication.

“Even if it does not take the form of systematic and omnidirectional suppression of media and journalists, excluding major media companies from overseas tours is consequently an act of restricting the media's reporting and the people's right to know,” Ryoo said.

“This is worrisome in that it may act as a kind of warning or chilling effect for other media outlets as well,” he added.



By Shin Ji-hye (shinjh@heraldcorp.com)
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