[Editorial] KBS in turmoil

By Korea Herald

Former newsroom head drops a bombshell

  • Published : May 18, 2014 - 20:40
  • Updated : May 18, 2014 - 20:40
A former newsroom chief of the Korean Broadcasting System has thrown the public broadcaster into turmoil by exposing the presidential office’s meddling in its news programming.

Kim Si-gon, who resigned as director of the network’s news bureau on May 9 over a controversial comment on the victims of the Sewol ferry disaster, dropped a bombshell revelation at a general meeting of KBS reporters on May 16.

Kim, who had led the newsroom for more than a year, cited a recent example of Cheong Wa Dae’s intervention in the broadcaster’s programming of news reports.

He said that he had received a phone call from Lee Jung-hyun, senior press secretary to President Park Geun-hye, after broadcasting a report criticizing the Coast Guard’s poor performance in rescuing the Sewol passengers.

Lee asked Kim to refrain from criticizing the Coast Guard, noting that search and rescue efforts were in full swing.

As Kim ignored Lee’s request for cooperation and ran another critical report on the Coast Guard, KBS president Gil Hwan-young weighed in, telling him to stop attacking the maritime police. Kim quoted Gil as saying that he had received the instruction from Cheong Wa Dae.

Kim also attributed his resignation to pressure from the Blue House. On May 9, Kim said, he was supposed to meet the families of the Sewol tragedy victims to apologize for a remark he had made in late April.

Kim triggered a row by reportedly telling junior KBS reporters that the nearly 300 fatalities from the disaster were not that significant compared with the annual number of people killed in traffic accidents.

The remark angered the families of the victims of the ferry tragedy. Kim explained that his comments had been taken out of context. But it was useless.

Some family members of the victims traveled from Jindo Island off the southern coast to Seoul to protest in front of the KBS headquarters. They also met Lee to demand that Kim be sacked for making an appropriate remark.

Kim said he and Gil had agreed to resolve the row by apologizing to the victims’ families. But less than an hour before the scheduled news conference, Gil told Kim to tender his resignation, saying, with tears in his eyes, that it was President Park’s intention and that Gil would also lose his job should Kim reject the instruction.

Kim decided to step down. But in announcing his resignation, he also called for his boss to quit, blaming him for frequent interventions in news programming.

If what Kim said is true, it means that Cheong Wa Dae controlled the broadcaster’s news programming and personnel management through its top official.

This would constitute a breach of the Broadcasting Act, which guarantees the freedom and independence of broadcast programming. The law stipulates that anyone who “regulates and interferes with broadcast programming” is subject to imprisonment for up to two years or a maximum fine of 30 million won.

Kim’s allegations have sent the state-funded broadcaster into turmoil. On Friday, heads of the newsroom’s 18 departments called for Gil’s resignation, declaring that they would step down from their posts should he reject their demand.

Their call gained traction as 46 team leaders under them joined them. The broadcaster’s two trade unions are also moving to go on strike to pressure Gil to step down.

All of this means KBS reporters are accepting Kim’s claims as true. But on Saturday, Gil denied the allegations, saying that he would make his case during a meeting with KBS employees on Monday.

It remains to be seen which side is telling the truth. But Gil is facing mounting pressure to step down. It seems difficult for him to reverse the sentiment among KBS employees.