Expanding public media space and media activism in Korea

by Myoungjoon Kim, Community Media Review

The South Korean media industry had begun to grow in earnest in the 1960s. It was characterized by a state monopoly of the broadcasting system and state censorship of films. The dictatorship that emerged in 1980, with the bloody suppression of the Gwangju Uprising, maintained state control over media. These efforts established the media industry as largely an industry of entertainment through a “three Ss” policy – sports, screen, and sex.

In the latter half of the 1980s, as a progressive mass movement for democracy began to gather strength, efforts to overcome the existing media environment developed into four social movements for democratic media, and have continued to grow and expand since: (1) alternative and independent film and video production; (2) a citizen’s critical media monitoring movement; (3) a trade union movement in the media industry; and (4) internet media activism including both the use of the internet for social change and internet democracy advocacy.

One of the most important results of this activism for democratizing the media structure was the introduction of public access legislation when the new Broadcasting Act was passed in 2000. This legislation included the requirement that the Korean Broadcasting System broadcast viewer-produced programs, and, additionally, that cable and satellite operators broadcast programs produced by the public via a regional channel or a public access channel. Finally, the law created a fund to support these productions.

As a result of this legislation, various access structures and policies were realized. First, national public broadcaster KBS airs a 30-minute slot called “Open Channel” on Saturday afternoons. Second, local cable channels became relatively open spaces where local citizens can show their own programs. Third, when new satellite operators get their licenses, one of the conditions is to create an access channel run by a nonprofit organization. Also, a new channel called RTV is actively supporting public access programming, and it will be a must-carry channel beginning in 2007 on all cable systems. In addition to these openings for the public in the television infrastructure, since 2004, community radio has emerged through a system of test licenses. (A new policy of issuing the licenses for low power community radio stations was introduced by the Broadcasting Commission, and a law for legalizing community radio will soon be introduced, which will strengthen local democracy.)

In short, Korea has became a very rare example of a country where public access to terrestrial, cable and satellite channels has become a reality. This commitment also includes a funding mechanism for access programming.

Generally, the movement supporting public access has occurred in three stages. The first stage was the fight for the introduction of public access through media activism before 1999. The second stage was the fight for extending this media space, securing funding and integrating public access more broadly into public media policy. This included establishing local media centers, introducing media education in and out of schools, lobbying for detailed policies regarding public access, and training and organizing local media activists into a national media activist network. The third and current stage is to clarify the framework of public access on every level and empower people to make this a strong space for democracy and self-expression, especially with the expectation of new neo-liberal trade and media policies.

With the advent and growth of digital video, access to the means of video production has grown, and training programs to utilize such means provided by independent groups have nurtured increasing numbers of independent activists.

These activists, in turn, have diversified, forming workers’ video collectives within trade unions, becoming video activists in civic groups, and so on.

The internet has come fully into play, and has become a battle ground, where opinions that will shape the future of the internet clash over a variety of issues including censorship, security, intellectual property rights, spam mail and governance.

At the same time, the internet has become an exciting new means and space for information sharing, communication and organization. Diverse new media – ranging from independent media such as Jinbonet, to alternative journalism such as Ohmynews – continue to emerge. And as was witnessed through the candlelight march in front of the American Embassy condemning U.S. Army atrocities in Ko- rea, spontaneous organization and mobilization of the masses through the internet poses a threat to mainstream media and forms a new political landscape. In addition, broadband internet offers an alternative means of spreading visual content, thereby accelerating the convergence and expansion process of the media movement.

This is still a struggle, because the concept of public access in not very wellknown among ordinary citizens, and the support for Neoliberal policies in the government and bureaucracy is so strong. The Free Trade Agreement between the U.S. and Korea, now being negotiated, will seriously undermine the basis of public access policy, not only for Korea but also for the U.S.

Still, there has been significant progress toward democratic media policy, and new local media centers for production and media activism such as MediACT are under construction in various cities. In addition, media activists continue to fight, research and produce; our national media activist network already includes hundreds of organizations in 18 different cities. In short, the future for public access and media democracy has strong potential but is not yet determined. Questions and challenges remain, such as: How can we build solidarity between various social movements and media activists? How can we build a new concept of the public interest? How can we develop these new concepts and policies where the Neoliberal ideas are increasingly prevalent?

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey