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[Editorial] Governance reform

New model required for public broadcaster

Calls to reform the governance structure of public broadcasters are growing as the feud between the president of the state-run Korea Broadcasting System and its employees escalates.

Reporters, anchors, producers and other staff of the nation’s most influential TV network are up in arms against their boss, Gil Hwan-young, as he is alleged to have intervened, on behalf of Cheong Wa Dae, in news programming for favorable coverage of President Park Geun-hye.

The allegations were raised by Kim Si-gon, who recently resigned as the director of the broadcaster’s newsroom. Kim also alleged that Gil had told him to stop airing news clips criticizing the Coast Guard for its lamentable response to the Sewol ferry tragedy.

Last Friday, one of the broadcaster’s two unions voted to go on strike to step up pressure on Gil to quit. Its members, mostly reporters and producers, have been boycotting production of news and other programs since early last week.

But Gil is digging in his heels, asserting that the allegations of Cheong Wa Dae’s intervention are totally groundless. He responded to union pressure by filing police complaints against eight unionists for using violence against him.

As the internal conflict intensifies, causing the network to cancel some of its programs, the four opposition-party-chosen directors on its 11-member board have proposed a motion to recommend Park remove Gil.

The board is to vote on the motion Wednesday, but the seven board members chosen by the ruling party are expected to reject it. The union warned it would launch a strike immediately if it rejected the motion against Gil.

While the union is demanding that the beleaguered CEO step down, the broadcaster’s governance system suggests that his resignation alone can hardly guarantee its independence from political influence.

The current system authorizes Cheong Wa Dae to appoint its CEO and select seven of the 11 board members. The presidential office would find it difficult to resist the temptation to use the powerful network for spin.

This is also true of Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation, another public broadcaster that underwent a similar feud two years ago. MBC’s largest shareholder is the Foundation for Broadcast Culture, with its nine directors recommended by the ruling and opposition parties at a 2:1 ratio. These directors appoint the CEO.

As is the case with the KBS, MBC’s governance structure allows the presidential office to control it. In fact, the preceding Lee Myung-bak government sought to influence its news reporting through its CEO, triggering a severe backlash from its employees.

So the key to safeguarding the political independence of public broadcasters is to reform the current method of appointing their directors and CEOs. This is the central demand of the 230 journalism professors who issued a statement Sunday.

The scholars urged the government to rush to reform the governance system of public networks. They called for an environment in which state-funded broadcasters could focus solely on promoting the public interest.

President Park is well aware of the governance problem at public networks. On the campaign trail, she promised to rewrite the Broadcasting Act to address it. She has yet to deliver on her pledge.

Early this month, the National Assembly’s Science, ICT, Future Planning, Broadcasting and Communications Committee passed an amendment to the act requiring a confirmation hearing for the KBS president. But this cannot be regarded as a solution. The government must face the problem squarely.