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[Editorial] Lee and media

When he faced a high wave of public protests over the U.S. beef import issue in 2008, the just-inaugurated President Lee Myung-bak vowed to enhance “public communication.” The president had a painful recognition that the arrogance from having earned the highest supporting rate in recent elections had quickly turned the people away from the new administration. About the harm of mad cow disease, the public trusted a hugely biased TV program more than the authorities’ scientific explanations.

As the new method of public communication, Lee chose to talk directly to the people. He has since spent a lot of time on air; he has delivered monthly radio-Internet speeches on national issues 57 times and made TV appearances on as many as 17 occasions to brief the people on major government policies. There were five press conferences but they were on limited subjects only. The presidential office called all these events “dialogue with the people.”

Yet another dialogue with the people is to be held this evening at the presidential office in the Blue House, broadcast live by the three terrestrial TV networks and some cable channels. The whole 90-minute session is to be stage-managed by the presidential press office. It selected two “panelists,” who are a radio talk show host and a TV news anchorwoman.

This will be the president’s fourth TV appearance since the beginning of 2011. The first two occasions were actually the reading of New Year policy statements and the third was his report on the successful “Operation Dawn of the Gulf of Aden” on Jan. 21, which rescued all 21 crewmembers of the Samho Jewelry from Somali pirates. The president will discuss “diplomacy, national security and the economy” with the two panelists but some other issues may also be taken up, according to the presidential office.

So, by now it has become apparent that the president will skip a New Year press conference again this year but will instead hold a roundtable in which he will give answers only to questions that he would like to answer. The three-year track record of the presidential communication with the people proves that we have a head of state who does not like to hear unexpected questions from journalists who have their own agenda on national affairs different from what the Blue House believes is important.

Even before the Lee Myung-bak presidency, Korea had not established presidential press conferences in the ideal way. During the authoritarian era, questions to the president were “assigned” to chosen media representatives. Since the end of the undemocratic rule, press access to the presidential office has become easier, but successive presidents have invariably limited their exposure to the media by holding press conferences on general subjects only once or twice a year. The incumbent president is cutting this customary channel and allows the media no chance of asking him what he thinks about any dark side of his administration or what he plans to do about it.

It may be his character to be shy of encountering inquisitive journalists. But it is one of the president’s essential duties to inform the public of what is going on in his government. Through an open press conference where reporters hurl questions on unrestricted subjects, he can also be informed of what the people want to know and things they want to be done. This cannot be expected from a TV show that will be completely worked out by the presidential press secretaries, network producers and writers.

The Blue House staff asserts they have no prior knowledge of what the two panelists will ask the president. They are nave if they think anyone will believe them.
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