Few expect South Korean public broadcasters such as KBS, MBC and EBS to stay politically neutral, largely because their journalistic narratives have long been twisted and distorted to portray the views of the ruling party of the moment in a positive light.
Some critics claim that public broadcasters are responsible themselves for making not-so-neutral TV programs and news reports, as if they exist only to serve the current administration and reflect the voices of ruling parties, while ignoring opposition parties and sidelining viewers.
Whenever such criticism emerged, public broadcasters countered that they have few other options due to the flawed governance structure that is designed so that they are controlled by members of ruling parties. Since the influence of broadcasters is enormous in shaping public opinion, every administration and its affiliated party that won the election have been keen to control the public media.
Political neutrality of public broadcasters, in other words, appears to be virtually impossible unless the governance structure changes with a revision to the related law.
Strangely enough, a major revision bill to the Broadcasting Act was abruptly voted to proceed at the Science, ICT, Broadcasting and Communications Committee at the National Assembly on Friday. The main opposition Democratic Party of Korea, which dominates the committee, unilaterally voted in favor of revisions, while members of the ruling People Power Party boycotted the vote.
The National Assembly has a reformed procedure rule that requires 90 days of deliberation for handling revision bills. The opposition party used its majority status and shortened the deliberation period to less than three hours on Friday by using a trick to recruit formally independent yet ex-Democratic Party lawmakers.
The revised bill will be sent to the Legislation and Judiciary Committee at the National Assembly for review. If the judiciary committee fails to pass the bill within 60 days, the Democratic Party will consider using a fast-track procedure to railroad the controversial bill.
Under the revision, the number of board members at public broadcasters will double to 21 and include representatives from academia, media and civic groups. And a 100-person committee will be formed to recommend presidents of public broadcasters, replacing the current governance structure that favors ruling parties.
Aside from the unilateral handling of the revision bill, the increased number of board members is one of the hotly disputed issues. The Democratic Party argues that an expanded reflection of viewers, civic groups and the media would go a long way to ensure political neutrality of public broadcasters. The People Power Party, in contrast, claims that many new board members from liberal organizations would lean toward the opposition -- an allegedly thinly veiled attempt that would turn public broadcasters into progressive media outlets in a way that serves the Democratic Party only.
The logic for forming a 21-person board for the country’s public media appears to be weak. British public broadcaster BBC, for instance, runs a 14-member board, and Japan's NHK has fewer than 10 board members. There is no urgent reason for expanding the board of KBC and MBC, since their job and program production remain the same.
Another contentious point is that the Democratic Party has dramatically changed its stance as it now finds itself in the opposition. When it was the ruling party, it showed no enthusiasm to push ahead with the reform proposal for the Broadcasting Act.
In 2016, the Democratic Party -- then the main opposition party -- set the governance reform of public broadcasters as an election pledge. Under the proposal, it would increase the number of board members to 13, with seven votes reserved for the ruling party and six for opposition parties, and appointing a president would require two-thirds of board members. At the time, the revision was widely expected to ensure political neutrality of public broadcasters.
When the Democratic Party won the presidential election, however, it shamefully ditched the revision bill and kicked out the presidents of KBS and MBC, who were appointed by the previous administration, in a fairly familiar fashion designed to influence public broadcasters in its favor.
If the Democratic Party truly wants the reform of public broadcasters, it should return to the negotiation table to discuss the issues with the People Power Party and hammer out a solution that ensures political neutrality. After all, the Democratic Party's unilateral push is far from neutral and raises too many questions about ulterior motives.