South Korea cuts funding to broadcaster as concern over press freedom grows

TBS set to have most of its funding cut starting in 2024 after a decision by Seoul city government, led by president Yoon’s party

A popular South Korean broadcaster accused of political bias is set to lose its city funding amid concern press freedoms are being restricted under the Yoon Suk-yeol government.

TBS, which operates two radio stations and a television channel, receives 70% of its funding from the Seoul city government.

On Tuesday, the city’s council passed a bill to abolish an ordinance for the metropolitan government’s funding for TBS, starting from January 2024. The broadcaster will be free to operate “independently”, the council said in a statement.

Yoon’s conservative People Power party [PPP], which also holds the majority of seats on the council, had called for the funding to be scrapped, arguing the move was necessary to “meet various demands of Seoul citizens in the broadcasting sector”.

TBS’s star radio personality, Kim Ou-joon, has been openly critical of the conservative ruling party and government. In a country dominated by conservative media, his morning show, News Factory, has consistently ranked among the most popular.

A controversial figure, Kim has been accused of being biased in favour of leftwing views. He has been criticised for giving guests a platform to attack the PPP and for reporting on conspiracy theories. TBS has been penalised multiple times for comments made by Kim that violate objectivity, and News Factory has faced a host of other legal problems.

Against this backdrop, the PPP has moved to cancel funding for TBS. The broadcaster received 32bn won (£20.6m) from the Seoul city government this year. Following Tuesday’s vote, its funding will be cut from 2024.

On Tuesday, union workers demonstrated outside the city council, calling for the withdrawal of the bill.

Milly You, a TBS employee and member of the National Union of Media Workers, told the Guardian that this was an “attack on press freedom,” and that they would take strong action against the decision. Yoo Sun-young, chair of TBS’s board, previously stated her intention to file an injunction if the funding cut bill passed.

“We are now standing at the site of the collapse of regional public discourse”, the union said in a statement.

The latest move comes as the conservative Yoon government has appeared to restrict press freedoms.

Ahead of his trip to Cambodia for the Asean and G20 summits, the presidential office barred MBC, a major terrestrial broadcaster, from boarding the state-funded presidential jet with the rest of the press pool. Yoon cited “national interest” and “biased coverage of foreign policy issues” as reasons for refusing to bring MBC.

Several organisations representing journalists’ interests, including the Seoul Foreign Correspondents’ Club (SFCC), expressed concern.

“Restrictions placed on one outlet for coverage deemed to be ‘distorted’ raise concerns for the freedom of all press, domestic and foreign,” the SFCC said in a statement. MBC has said that it intends to file a constitutional complaint.

The International Federation of Journalists also condemned the move against MBC, calling it a “direct challenge to the basic democratic order of guaranteeing freedom of the press that transcends political parties”.

Yoon’s “hot mic” comments in September during a trip to New York, in which he appeared to swear about the possibility that US parliamentarians would not accept president Joe Biden’s billion-dollar contribution to a global fund to fight diseases, were first reported by MBC.

After the remarks went viral, the presidential office went on the offensive, claiming Yoon had said something different. Yoon himself stated that the “untrue” report “damaged” US-South Korea relations. The PPP filed a complaint accusing MBC of misreporting the president’s words.

In another recent incident related to freedom of speech, the government issued a “grave warning” to the organisers of a cartoon competition that awarded the top prize to a high school student’s satirical depiction of Yoon as a runaway train led by his wife.

Raphael Rashid in Seoul

The GuardianTramp

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