By Yang Sung-jin
The so-called “press-taming plot” is sending shockwaves throughout the nation. The complicated controversy revolves around the alleged press- taming bid of the government, with the ruling camp denouncing the opposition’s offensive as political slandering, while the latter is accusing the government of a cover-up attempt.
At this point, no one knows who is telling the truth. What’s certain is that a reporter of the JoongAng Ilbo wrote the seven-page document outlining a plan to control the media for the current government, which was sent to the office of Lee Jong-chan, former director of the National Intelligence Office.
Complicating the incident further, another reporter of the Pyonghwa Broadcasting Corp. delivered the document to Rep. Chung Hyung-kuen of the opposition Grand National Party, who later disclosed it in an attack on the ruling party.
All this puts the role of journalism into question. After all, the relationship between the government and media has never been easy.
The Choson rulers knew the nature of journalism and its specialized function of placing a check on the government and keeping authority at bay.
Unlike today’s mass media, journalistic checks and balances were assigned to three state agencies.
The three-pronged system to prevent abuses in the exercise of political authority was called “Samsa,” a combined term for the Office of Special Advisers (Hongmungwan), the Office of the Inspector-General (Sahonbu) and the Office of the Censor-General (Saganwon).
The Office of Special Advisers maintained a library, researched administrative and legal precedents, wrote major state documents and took up the role of an advisory organ to the Choson kings.
The Office of the Inspector-General was a surveillance organ, tackling the political issues of the day, scrutinizing government officials and rectifying public mores.
The Office of the Censor-General was to keep an eye on the conduct of the king, blocking the arbitrary exercise of the throne’s power.
In other words, the Samsa agencies, with its keen scrutiny of the public and private conduct of the king and high-ranking officials, played the role of sharp-eyed journalists.
Yet few rulers welcome the idea of busybody journalists who constantly point out problems with state affairs. That mentality was shared by Choson monarchs, who wielded great power and authority.
In November of 1592, the Office of the Censor-General called for freedom in filing an appeal to the king whenever necessary.
“The public opinion is the basic source of a nation’s power. Filing an appeal to the king is the foundation for the public opinion. Of course, there may not be much to discuss between the king and officials at this point. But if Your Majesty asks for advice on the sate affairs, officials will discuss pending issues in detail, which will strengthen the nation’s vitality,” the agency noted.
King Taejo, who founded the Choson Kingdom, acknowledged the necessity of the journalistic function of the Censor-General Office yet balked at giving unbridled freedom of speech.
In a statement responding to the Censor-General Office’s appeal, King Taejo said appeals related to “important” state affairs would be accepted.
Defining the degree of importance of a specific issue was arguable, a point the king himself used as a tool to reject unpleasant pieces of advice from intrusive officials.
On June 14 of 1402, officials continued to file an appeal calling for more freedom of speech in attacking the conduct of the king.
“In the past, everybody could appeal to the king directly since there were no specialized officials. It was during the Han China period when specific offices were established to file appeals on behalf of ordinary people. Therefore, the king who stops listing to the officials’ appeal is shutting his eyes and ears to the public opinion,” the Censor-General Office said.
Curiously, the agency compared the king’s power to a bolt of lightning striking down trees.
“King’s authority is more powerful than thunder. Even if Your Majesty appears ready to accept suggestions on the state affairs, officials fear putting forward their ideas. But Your Majesty sometimes attacks officials who file an appeal for the sake of the nation, which is really worrying,” the agency said.
The Censor-General Office’s appeal was adamant about its original role, urging the king to change his mind on the issue: “Officials in charge of providing advice to the king should risk their lives all the time. This is only for the benefit of the nation, while disregarding personal interest and well- being. And we are not concerned about getting punished for our advice and appeals.”
One month later, all the officials at the Inspector-General and Censor- General were fired. Sacking the staff, King Taejong cited the endless appeals from the two agencies, criticizing each other.
It is far from certain whether King Taejong purported to “tame” the officials who were more than ready to point out king’s misconduct. By all counts, kings and officials frequently waged a showdown with each other over the appeals in a sort of power struggle.
On July 11, 1467, when King Sejo held a drinking party with key court officials, a Censor-General official named Kim Ji crossed the line to speak out about a bribery charge against Kim Kuk-kwang who attended the party.
Kim Ji’s abrupt appeal at a festive event apparently irked the king. He kicked Kim Ji out of the party and imprisoned other Censor-General officials. That was quite a see-through press-taming plot.