Seoul members of AAJA-Asia spent an afternoon on Saturday, Sept. 12, watching a movie about journalists who uncovered what some call the biggest scoop in the history of journalism in South Korea, and speaking with a journalist who has lost his job at a South Korean major broadcaster, years after the scoop.
“The Whistleblower” is a Korean drama based on a true story of journalists at South Korean broadcaster MBC who exposed in 2005 how Hwang Woo-suk’s stem cell research was fabricated. At the time Hwang was a national hero whom no one could dare challenge and his work was revered as a national achievement.
Choi Seung-ho led the team that investigated the Hwang scandal at MBC’s PD Notebook program, which aired documentary features based on investigative journalism. The PD Notebook team’s work on Hwang was then met by a huge backlash from public and advertisers.
Choi, (who joined online media Newstapa after being dismissed by MBC in 2012, joined Seoul members of AAJA-Asia on Sept. 12 at D. Camp.
More about the event and Mr. Choi.
There were a lot of questions from audiences, covering a diverse range of topics, from the stem cell scandal to challenges facing South Korean media and investigative journalism.
Here is an edited version of the highlights from the Q&A with Mr. Choi.
Pictures were taken by AAJA-Asia member Salgu Wissmath.
On the differences between the movie and the real life: Among the major differences, Choi said the broadcaster’s stance back in 2005 over whether to broadcast the program exposing the fraud was “more cowardly” than it was depicted in the movie. The movie showed that the president of the broadcaster made a final call to air the program. But in reality, the MBC president initially gave up airing the program. Only after the public opinion turned favorable toward the PD Notebook team and pressured the broadcaster to air the program exposing the stem cell scandal, the president changed his decision. Choi said public opinion began to change after some minor media published stories that the show should go on air.
On his layoff and political pressure on South Korean media: Choi was a star producer at MBC’s PD Notebook for a very long period, a program that produced documentary features based on investigative journalism. Some called PD Notebook’s work on the Hwang scandal was the biggest scoop in history of journalism in South Korea. Nevertheless, Mr. Choi was fired from MBC in 2012. His layoff came after 170 days of strike by unionized journalists at MBC. Choi said he was not part of the labor union but he was still fired, along with other union members, likely because he produced many works that were “not pleasant to President Lee Myung-bak.” Public broadcasters that used to play an important role in informing public in South Korea came under political pressure after President Lee took office in 2008, he said, which led to strikes at many news organizations including MBC, YTN and Yonhap News demanding editorial independence.
Choi said in order to give journalists editorial independence and prevent them from getting removed from their job by external pressure, South Korea needs to change how presidents of public broadcasters are selected. South Korea’s presidential office has power to select presidents at public broadcasters, he said. President Park Geun-hye promised during her campaign to change laws so that president’s office would have no say in appointing the head of public broadcasters, but “maybe she forgot” and she “continues to do the same thing.”
(FYI: An appeal court recently ruled that Choi and some of the journalists who were fired back then should be reinstated and they are waiting for a final decision from the Supreme Court.)
After the Hwang scandal: Choi said more scrutiny has been given to scientific works after the 2005 stem cell scandal. Even then, journalists who specialize in a certain area has failed to win much trust because they tend to stay “too close to” or too cozy with their sources and players in the community they should be critical of. Choi said it is not limited to science journalism. He described the unique system in South Korean media, where only a limited number of media companies with credentials have access to information, and where journalists are assigned to cover a certain government ministry or company, forming a cozy relationship with journalists.
On Newstapa’s coverage of MERS crisis: There was a question about how Newstapa, the online news organization founded by journalists laid off from mainstream South Korean media, covered the MERS crisis when South Korea’s government withheld the name of hospitals where patients contracted MERS. Choi said Newstapa was second only to Pressian to disclose the list of hospitals. It called each hospital to verify the list.
On threats he has faced: Choi said he hasn’t faced much physical or verbal threats but there have been many legal threats. Lucky for him, he has never lost any lawsuit. One recent lawsuit he won — South Korea’s National Intelligence Service sued him and an official at Newstapa after they reported about a North Korean defector in South Korea who was accused of being a North Korean spy by NIS. Newstapa reported that the defector was falsely accused of being a spy.
Choi said he in fact he would like the NIS and others to sue him. “If we investigate in a right way, South Korean court system is okay” in protecting the journalists who are doing their job.
On reporting in South Korea: Choi said one challenge of reporting in South Korea is that public officials “lie too often” without feeling guilty. Public officials should have some ethics code so that they would not lie to journalists, he said.