Stop the press: South Korea's journalists cry foul

SEOUL Thu Oct 11, 2007 12:55pm BST

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea cut Internet connections to a string of ministry press rooms on Thursday, the latest step in a drive to close down what it says are collusive and cosy clubs.

The aim of herding Seoul's journalists into a few centralised briefing rooms has provoked outrage in media organisations and brought accusations that the government is trying to muzzle the press. Some reporters have boycotted the new press rooms and staged sit-down strikes at their old desks.

"We have given enough time to vacate the current press rooms, which have been allocated for other uses," an official at the Government Information Agency said.

"We will be taking the steps (to shut them down) tomorrow."

Government officials said they wanted reporters out of the old press rooms by the end of the working week.

"Whether you agree with the policy or not, this is not the right way to go about it," a reporter for one domestic newspaper said. "You don't do this even when you're trying to evict a tenant who didn't pay his rent."

South Korea said it wants to make the government more open by allowing for greater media access at the new briefing rooms and setting up live Internet broadcasts of news conferences.

It argues the old system led to a collusive system between bureaucrats and journalists, and among journalists themselves.

Most South Korean ministries had separate press rooms where domestic media stationed reporters throughout the day and who form informal but exclusive press clubs.

The government campaign began with bitter words from the country's unpopular president, Roh Moo-hyun. He told a cabinet meeting in January that "reporters sit around" press rooms and conspire to write critical stories about his government.

Leading presidential contenders to replace Roh, who has only a few months left in office, have said they would restore the old briefing rooms if they take power.

The government has bowed to pressure and rolled back a provision in new regulations that would require bureaucrats to first seek permission before they could meet reporters. But many critics say the new system will still severely limits access.

The Korea News Editors' Association has called the entire plan "a means to oppress media freedom" while other critics say it harkened back to the days when South Korean dictators censored the media.

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