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State-sponsored Censorship: Behind the Blacklists of Korea

Ever since there were blacklist allegations against former president Lee Myung-bak’s government, it turned out that such blacklists had been used to take over the media as well as the world of culture and art. Recently, after the disclosure of a blacklist to the public, producers and reporters of Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) have gone on strike with the labor union of Korean Broadcasting System (KBS). Therefore, Koreans have been affected by the strike in their daily lives. The Sungkyun Times (SKT) now introduces what blacklisting is, analyzes allegations of blacklists during the Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye governments, and suggests core implications from the controversies surrounding this issue.

What Is Blacklisting?

Blacklists, which generally refer to lists of people or organizations under suspicion, have been used for a long time. They were traditionally much more common in fields other than politics, whose negative meaning has been purified to mean a “block list.”
For example, a trade blacklist is a list of non-tradable goods, meaning that only goods not on the list can be traded. In the labor world, blacklisting means denying one’s employment for certain reasons such as political affiliation, involvement in trade union activity or a history of whistle blowing. These days, however, the term “blacklist” is more often used in political situations. Blacklists are often included in confidential documents of governments and mostly remain private. The Hollywood blacklist in the United States (US), for example, was made in 1947 under McCarthyism to block screenwriters and other Hollywood professionals purported to have Communist sympathies. Unfortunately, blacklisted professionals got fired and remained unemployed for long periods. Meanwhile, some people have recently argued that Hollywood has blacklisted conservative celebrities who supported Donald Trump during the presidential election.

How Blacklisting Has Become an Issue in Korea

Blacklisting has been an important issue in Korea since last September, when some people started to debate whether blacklists might have existed during the Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye governments. In 2016, shortly after a big political scandal in Korea, government officials involved in making blacklists got arrested. In the end, a reform task force of the National Intelligence Service (NIS), which was launched under the current Moon government to find the truth about allegations of harming democracy, announced that the NIS under former President Lee Myung-bak, Park’s predecessor, had created blacklists. Shortly after this announcement, people were shocked to discover that it was actually the Lee government which initiated blacklisting so-called left-leaning public figures. Since it is definitely a violation of democratic principles and the constitution, the task force has been investigating the range of the blacklists and related officials with special prosecutors.

Blacklisting of Korea
A Blacklist of Cultural Figures Under the Lee Government

According to the task force, the NIS under former President Lee made a blacklist of left-leaning cultural figures and unduly put pressure on them. The list had 82 names, ranging from the cultural world including writers to the art world. Figures who criticized the Lee government on Social Network Services (SNS) or took part in the 2008 US beef protest were all blacklisted, including famous left-leaning figures like Moon Seoung-geun, Kim Mi-hwa and Kim Je-dong. For example, Kim Mi-hwa and Kim Je-dong suddenly stepped down from programs that they hosted and disappeared from broadcasting for a while. Some people suggested that they might have been banned by the government and it turned out to be true that the NIS indeed pressured them to step down from their TV shows. The task force added that there was a document which outlined plans of spreading an unconfirmed rumor that one of the blacklisted figures injected propofol, a medication sometimes used for recreational drug use, to destroy his or her image. Moreover, the Lee government created a “whitelist” for fostering pro-government celebrities. It whitelisted certain celebrities and then casted them for public service announcements or events to make them appear more supportive of the government.

A Blacklist of Cultural Figures Under the Park Government

The NIS, the former Park government and the Ministry of Culture created a blacklist after the Sewol Ferry disaster occurred in 2014. The list had 9,473 names in total, including cultural figures who criticized the Park government regarding its inability to handle the disaster or raised voices in support of her opposition candidates, Moon Jae-in and Park Won-soon. Those who spoke against the government regarding social issues, such as supporting the protests of irregular workers, were all blacklisted. Former president Park tried to control left-leaning figures from cultural and art fields, excluding them from some federal budget support. For example, the budget for the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) was nearly cut in half, from ₩1.4 billion in 2014 to ₩800 million in 2015. It was because the Park government pressured the Korean Film Council on the grounds of BIFF showing the movie “The Truth Will Not Sink with Sewol (original title “Diving Bell”),” a documentary criticizing the government’s handling of the Sewol Ferry disaster. Moreover, the film distributor “Cinema Dal” was immediately blacklisted and excluded from budget support by the government. Later, it turned out that the Park government established and operated Mir and K-Sports Foundations, which were also supported by major companies in Korea, to curb the left-leaning world of art and help maintain the status of the conservative government.

MBC Media Blacklist

The ongoing MBC-KBS joint Labor Union strike started against the NIS under former president Lee who tried to control the media, including public broadcasting. Documents of plans to change the executives based on their political biases and to put a priority on recruiting producers and reporters with similar views of the country were revealed. Such documents let the government to reform public broadcasting in an intended way and even change ownership structures by emasculating labor unions that stood in the way of achieving their goals. Moreover, the Lee government looked into recognition toward the government of main producers of MBC and KBS and blacklisted them immediately as they turned out to be censorious with the government. Ever since this blacklist was revealed to the public, employees of MBC and KBS realized that the blacklist was the reason why they were treated badly. As a result, MBC-KBS joint Labor Union members have been on strike simultaneously since September 4th, demanding resignation of the executives that helped the government manage the blacklists. They also want justice for journalists who were unfairly fired, transferred, suppressed, or given disciplinary measures by the government. Since the strike began, radio broadcasts on MBC FM4U have been postponed indefinitely, with only a couple of news programs left and major programs such as Infinite Challenge or I Live Alone have been replaced with special programs. Citizens are also experiencing inconveniences in their daily lives due to these blacklists as they cannot even watch the programs they want.

Lessons Learned from Blacklisting in Korea
Such blacklists from the former governments present significant implications to both people and the current government.

Guaranteeing Freedom by Amendment of the Law

Blacklisting is illegal by itself, for it infringes on the freedom of the people of conscience, of expression, and of creation clarified in the American Constitution. For example, in 1999, the former New York City mayor threatened to freeze the budget allocation of Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin of Mary, which was exhibited in the Brooklyn Museum in New York, describing the work as “disgusting.” The court, however, reached a verdict that withdrawing the budget is a violation of freedom of expression. Blacklisting, therefore, needs to be forbidden by law before anything else.
Indeed, many countries like Canada and France have forbidden creating blacklists of certain people or organizations by establishing relevant laws. The French Parliament, for example, in 2016, established a law on “Freedom of Creation, Architecture and Heritage” that guarantees freedom of creation and cultural diversity of artists regardless of their political opinions. This prevented local governments or organizations from prohibiting some art works from being displayed. Keeping up with such movements, the amendment of Article 4 of the Framework Act on Culture was proposed on February 13th of 2017. The amendment included “political opinions” as one of the conditions which should not discriminate people. Not only is amending the laws necessary, but establishing affiliated organizations to make policies which prevent blacklists is needed. In the US, after the release of the Hollywood blacklist in 1950s, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) was established to prevent the government from intervening in the world of culture and art. The organization has observers participating in the progress of the meetings and an advisory committee in order to prevent injustice. It consists of 14 individuals appointed by the president for their expertise and knowledge in each field of art as well as six observers recommended by Congress who serve for two years. As in the US, the executives of organizations such as Art Council Korea (ARKO) and Korea Arts Management Service (KAMS) should be appointed reflecting on artists’ opinions.

Efforts Required from Civic Groups and the Government

A government which blacklists people and manages them unfairly plainly shows abuses of power and violations of privacy laws. Spying on political actions or opinions of people who have nothing to do with national security is like treating them as criminals and infringing on people’s rights not to be censored by the government. To protect the rights of people against abuses of power, civic groups need to be more active. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) of the US, for example, is an international non-profit group which defends freedom of expression and digital rights on the Internet from the government. It was founded in 1990 to promote Internet civil liberties in response to a series of unfair actions of the government, such as using or even deleting information of game magazines on its own. The organization has expanded its range, from implementing legislative activities to protecting personal information and developing software to protect people’s rights online against being spied on for no reason. Recently, EFF also curbs surveillance programs implemented by the National Security Agency (NSA) and regularly distributes documents on the problems and related cases of the NSA’s illegal spying on civilians.
More importantly, public officials’ rights to disobey unfair government directives such as blacklisting should be guaranteed by law. According to the criminal act in Korea, it is illegal for the government to obstruct public officials from exercising their rights by using illegal intimidation or coercion to do any unobliged work. In fact, the process of handling instructions that hinder fair performance of duties is specified in the Code of Conduct for Public Officials. There, however, should be specified articles in the State Public Officials Act since public officials must refuse to follow the directives and disobedience of those directives should not be punished if directives from the government are illegal. Before anything else, it is important to remove blacklists with better awareness of public officials and practices in public offices.

The recent ongoing strikes of public broadcasters of MBC and KBS might be a minor inconvenience to citizens. Behind it, however, there has been undue abuses of power from the former governments involving blacklists. Blacklists from the last two governments affected and harmed not only figures from the cultural and art worlds, but also the political world and even civil society. In order to prevent governmental power from being abused by blacklists, civil groups, governments and the cultural world should cooperate and find proper solutions for this problem.

김효진  theweeknd@skku.edu

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