What They Said is a weekly series on the quotes behind the headlines.
On the night of November 9, two days before South Korean president Yoon Suk Yeol was to leave for a six-day trip to Cambodia and Indonesia to attend ASEAN-related meetings and the G20 summit, the Office of the President notified MBC, one of the three largest broadcasting companies in South Korea, that MBC journalists in the press pool would not be allowed to board South Korea’s presidential jet, Code One. The Office of the President explained:
“[Members of the press] have been allowed to board the presidential jet as a convenience offered [by the Office of the President]. In consideration of MBC’s repeatedly distorted and biased reporting related to diplomacy, the Office of the President has decided not to provide the convenience to MBC.”
— Office of the President, November 9, 2022
This apparent singling out of MBC for “distorted and biased reporting”, has raised concerns about the freedom of the press being eroded by the current administration. MBC was the first, of many, to report on the so-called “expletive controversy” in September. The president criticized the report at the time, saying “Undermining [the US-Korea] alliance with false reports puts the [Korean] people at great risk.” In July, MBC also reported that acquaintances of the first lady had boarded Code One on the president’s trip to Madrid, Spain. Previously, MBC had also reported on the plagiarism allegations surrounding first lady Kim Keon-hee’s theses and dissertation.
On November 10, during his morning Q&A session with the press, Yoon explained:
“The reason the president travels abroad spending people’s taxes is because important national interests are at stake. And so far we have provided reporters with the convenience of reporting on these diplomatic and security issues, so the decision was made in that respect.”
— Yoon Suk Yeol, president of the Republic of Korea, November 10, 2022
The president’s explanation was met with an outcry.
The press pool for the Office of the President issued a statement on the same day:
“The Press Pool of the Central Press Office for the Office of the President (hereafter referred to as the Press Pool) announce the following position on the Office of the President’s ban on MBC journalists boarding Code One:
1. We express our deep regret that just before the presidential visit, the Office of the President has taken the unilateral measure of excluding a single media company from boarding Code One, without any prior consultation, causing great confusion among all the reporters.
2. The reporters travel on the presidential plane to cover the news, as it is the people’s right to know. All related expenses are borne by each media company. However, the Office of the President has approached this issue as though it were providing the media companies with the convenience of reporting, as if giving preferential treatment. We do not agree with this.
3. We demand a prompt withdrawal of this decision, being wary of the fact that depriving a particular media outlet of the opportunity to cover the news, for any reason, may lead to similar measures for other media companies in the future.
4. Any restrictions on media coverage that may infringe on the public’s right to know must be discussed in advance with the reporters in a reasonable manner, and we firmly oppose any measures taken by unilateral notification.
The above position was decided after the special general meeting of the Press Pool for the Office of the President convened on November 10, 2022.”
— Press Pool for the Office of the President, November 10, 2022
MBC’s Broadcasting Journalist Association also issued a statement on the same day:
“Ahead of President Yoon Suk Yeol’s trip to Southeast Asia, the Office of the President announced that MBC reporters would not be allowed to board his private plane. This is an absurd idea that has no precedent, and it is blatant oppression and intimidation of the press. MBC reporters strongly condemn this and would like to point out several facts.
First, the presidential jet is not the private property of the president. It is an asset of the country that is purchased and operated with the people’s tax money. Reporters boarding the jet are partaking in a legitimate reporting activity to ensure the people’s right to know. As they must cover the matter closely, with consideration for the president’s security, protocol, and schedule, the press pool for the Office of the President accompanies him. All the media companies accompanying the president’s trip pay their fair share of airfare and other expenses. Are there any rules or grounds for excluding specific media outlets?
The Office of the President’s claim that banning MBC reporters from boarding Code One was an ‘unavoidable measure to prevent distorted and biased reporting’ is also lacking. Who caused a stir with inappropriate remarks at a public diplomatic event, and who worsened the situation by failing to properly explain it? As we have emphasized many times, if you think there is a problem with the reporting, it should be addressed according to the procedures guaranteed by the laws and systems. It is neither fair nor reasonable to repeatedly single out MBC while not saying anything to other media outlets that have reported the same content.
The unilateral notice from the Office of the President is aggression, which shows that any media company that has made unfavorable or critical reports about the administration can be singled out at any time and put at a disadvantage. It is a clear violation of the freedom of the press stipulated by the Constitution. So the Office of the President must now rectify the wrong measures and ensure fair reporting activities.
An unqualified civilian accompanied President Yoon Suk Yeol on his tour of the NATO summit in June. MBC covered this and reported it exclusively. We hope [that the ban on MBC journalists] is not [sic] a coincidence. MBC reporters will not succumb to this unreasonable intimidation from the Office of the President.”
— MBC Broadcasting Journalist Association, November 10, 2022
The Journalists Association of Korea, the Korea Broadcasting Journalist Association, the Korea Video Journalist Association, the Korean Producers and Directors Association, and the National Union of Media Workers issued a joint statement criticizing the president’s decision to ban MBC journalists from boarding Code One. The Korean Association of Newspapers also issued a statement demanding the removal of the ban, while the Seoul Foreign Correspondents’ Club (SFCC) board expressed its concern about the “freedom of all press, domestic and foreign” in South Korea.
On November 12, MBC announced that it had decided to file for a constitutional appeal against the Office of the President.