The food. The sights. The incredible hospitality.
But most of all, new friendships and professional relationships.
That’s what nine SPJ members brought home after a trip to South Korea in October.
The trip was the latest step in a developing international exchange between SPJ and the Journalists Association of Korea (JAK). Delegations from JAK have attended our convention the past two years, meeting each time with the national officers. In Tampa, JAK President Lee Sang-ki spoke at the Legal Defense Fund Roast.
Earlier this year, Lee invited SPJ to send a delegation to the First East Asia Journalism Forum in Seoul. If we got ourselves there, his organization would pay our expenses in Korea.
So on Oct. 6, nine SPJ members found themselves at the National Press Club in Seoul with journalists from 13 other nations. We learned a lot about the condition of the press in Asia, from the wide-open freedoms of South Korea and the Philippines to the party-line press of Singapore, Vietnam and China. We heard from two journalists in Mongolia, where they’re trying to find their proper role in a country that has been free only a decade.
What surprised us the most were how familiar some of the stories were: Australians worried about a concentration of media ownership. Filipinos worried about too much infotainment. Malaysians are dealing with a government that emphasizes security at the cost of freedom.
We offered our moral support to those fighting the good fight in a region rated as least friendly to press rights. We offered our example for those who have not yet taken up the fight.
The highlight of the forum was the adoption of an East Asian Peace Initiative by the 11 Asian delegations. SPJ was not asked to sign it and could not have because of some of the language. But the nine of us offered a resolution of support. We noted that SPJ actively promotes freedom of the press, access to government information, diversity in coverage and ethics in journalism “in the belief that knowledge is key to self-government.” We stood, the resolution said, in solidarity with our fellow journalism organizations as they strove toward the same goals.
Because of our developing relationship with JAK, we wanted to better understand the press situation in South Korea. It is in a “time of transition,” I was told several times. We met with journalists who had worked under the thumb of military dictatorships. Now, the liberal party has held the presidency for two terms, but it is battling with press owners who are largely conservative. We heard concerns that opinion is too often making it onto the front page.
A few months ago, President Roh Moo-hyun sued two journalists. I asked one of his key cabinet members if he believed the press was fair to the government; he was not shy in attacking newspapers for what he considered unfair attacks on him. At a table full of Korean journalists, none chose to respond.
I wouldn’t presume to tell South Korean journalists how to do their jobs. They work in a different culture and a different historical context. But I believe SPJ can offer them examples of what works here, including our Code of Ethics. And the Korean journalists can offer us an outside eye on our own performance.
SPJ has been invited to return to the second forum next year. And we’ve invited JAK to come to the New York convention in 2004, after which we will invite our new friends to visit SPJ members’ communities and stay in their homes.
South Korea is a vital American ally in Asia. Its press is among the most free in that part of the world. It makes sense for SPJ to do what we can to support JAK’s leadership in improving and protecting Korean journalism, so that it may be an example to the rest of the continent.
Robert Leger is immediate past president of the Society of Professional Journalists and editorial page editor of the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader.