Media divide

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 March, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 March, 2004, 12:00am

South Korean politicians, business people and ordinary citizens are quarrelling over last week's parliamentary vote to impeach President Roh Moo-hyun, but another battle is brewing in the media.

Television and internet media are denouncing lawmakers who voted for the impeachment. But major newspapers support the vote against what they view is an incompetent president.

The battle between the electronic and print media is so nasty that it is intensifying ideological, generational and regional divisions within society. Television stations whipped up disgust against lawmakers by broadcasting, over and over, the ugly scenes of pushing and shoving at the National Assembly during the vote last Friday.

At a time of political uncertainty, a growing division is the last thing South Korea needs.

Television stations tended to play up the frustration and anger of the general public through talk shows, street interviews and other programmes that followed the vote. Along with progressive internet media, television stations also gave extensive coverage to street rallies and candle-light protests by Mr Roh's supporters.

That helped swing the public mood against opposition parties and in favour of the left-leaning, reformist president's fledgling Uri Party ahead of parliamentary elections next month. Its popularity suddenly rose to nearly 50 per cent of public support after the vote, from around 30 per cent, while that of opposition parties slipped.

For their part, the top three national newspapers, which account for 75 per cent of the total national circulation, tried to emphasise the reasons for the impeachment vote. While pointing out Mr Roh's mistakes and misdeeds, the papers also accused television of misleading the public.

Conservative groups, such as anti-Pyongyang veterans' associations, placed newspaper ads denouncing what they believed was television's biased coverage. Liberal civic groups and media-watching agencies issued statements against the papers and opposition parties.

The media division seems unavoidable given recent history. During South Korea's dictatorial regimes to the 1980s, both print and broadcasting media reflected the conservative views of authoritarian rulers.

With the arrival of democratic governments in the 1990s, however, television stations turned liberal, while newspapers stayed conservative. Mr Roh has said he would not have been elected without support from television. The split reflects the fact that television companies are largely government owned, while newspapers are still run by private owners. The media divide will be difficult to overcome, in a country that, more than ever, needs national consensus to tackle its barrage of problems.