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Bill to gut city funding for TBS eFM passed despite protests

The Seoul city council has passed a controversial bill that would essentially gut the city’s funding for TBS eFM, Seoul’s only English-language radio network.

During a plenary session Tuesday afternoon, the council, controlled by the ruling People Power Party, rammed the bill through a vote. Opposition members boycotted the vote in protest.

The legislation, slated to take effect on Jan. 1, 2024, would deprive TBS, short for Traffic Broadcasting System, of around 30 billion won ($22.7 million) in annual subsidies it receives from the city, which accounts for 70 percent of its annual budget.

TBS offers radio programs in Korean, English and other languages. Its English-language eFM programs have helped keep expat listeners updated on various issues and matters impacting their life in Seoul and Korea, from traffic and weather to music, current South Korean affairs and the latest COVID-19 case counts.

Doubts over the radio station’s funding began when the conservative People Power Party gained control of the 112-member Seoul Metropolitan Council in the June elections. Conservatives have taken issue with the political balance of TBS' programming, in particular the Korean-language weekday talk show “News Factory,” hosted by journalist Kim Ou-joon, who urged voters to support the Democratic Party.

The Korean Communications Standards Commission has penalized "News Factory" for violating objectivity standards half a dozen times since 2018. Its host also breached broadcasting rules during the presidential election by urging voters to support then-ruling party candidate Lee Jae-myung on a private podcast.

Employees of TBS protest the Seoul city council's decision to pass an ordinance that would cut government subsidies for the broadcaster, in front of the Seoul Metropolitan Council in Seoul on Tuesday. (Yonhap)
Employees of TBS protest the Seoul city council's decision to pass an ordinance that would cut government subsidies for the broadcaster, in front of the Seoul Metropolitan Council in Seoul on Tuesday. (Yonhap)

The main opposition Democratic Party of Korea has opposed the People Power Party’s campaign to gut funding for TBS, saying it infringes upon the freedom of press.

The ordinance, passed by the municipal council on Tuesday, is now forwarded to a deliberation committee headed by the mayor for its finalization.

The move comes amid disputes over the Yoon Suk-yeol administration’s handling of media outlets that have been unfavorable to it.

The presidential office refused to allow MBC reporters on the presidential plane for Yoon’s first trip to Southeast Asia as president last week.

It marked the first time a particular news outlet has officially been denied access to the presidential plane. The presidential office said the decision was made as MBC has been making “series of distorted and biased reports concerning Yoon’s diplomacy."

The broadcaster reported a recent hot mic incident involving Yoon, adding a subtitle that indicated the president used vulgar language in reference to the US Congress. The official position of the presidential office was that the language was used in reference to Korea's National Assembly, not US lawmakers.

Despite other major news outlets using the same subtitles, the ruling party filed charges against MBC on allegations including defamation.



By Yoon Min-sik (minsikyoon@heraldcorp.com)
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