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South Korean President Yoon Faces Flak for Banning TV Broadcaster From Plane

Yoon accused MBC of “biased reporting” and barred them, saying “important national interests” were at stake.

Seoul:  Journalist organisations say South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol attacked press freedoms when his office banned one TV broadcaster's crew from the press pool travelling on his presidential plane this week for allegedly biased reporting.

Yoon previously accused MBC of damaging the country's alliance with the United States after it released a video suggesting that he insulted US Congress members following a meeting with US President Joe Biden in New York in September.

Yoon's office told MBC it wouldn't provide the broadcaster with “reporting assistance” over his upcoming trips to Cambodia and Indonesia for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and Group of 20 meetings because of what it described as “repeated distortion and biased reporting” on diplomatic issues.

Yoon, a conservative who took office in May, doubled down Thursday on the decision to exclude MBC reporters from his plane, saying “important national interests” were at stake.

Yoon leaves for Cambodia on Friday to attend the ASEAN meetings and he will be in Indonesia the following week for the G-20 meetings. He will participate in a trilateral summit on Sunday with Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Cambodia to discuss the growing threat posed by North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile programmes.

“The reason the president uses so much taxpayer money to travel overseas is because important national interests are at stake and that is also why we have provided reporting assistance to reporters covering diplomatic and security issues,” Yoon said. “(I) hope that the decision could be understood from that perspective,” he said about leaving MBC reporters off his plane, which would exclude them from in-flight briefings and other media opportunities.

In statements provided to The Associated PressMBC said Yoon's office was ignoring press freedoms and democratic principles and that it would still be sending reporters to Cambodia and Indonesia on commercial flights to cover Yoon's trip to serve the "public's right to know.”

A coalition of journalist organisations, including the Journalists Association of Korea and the National Union of Media Workers, issued a statement demanding Yoon's office withdraw what they described as an “unconstitutional and ahistorical restriction on reporting,” and for presidential officials involved in the decision to resign.

 “The presidential plane is operated with taxpayer money and each media outlet pays with their own money to cover the reporting costs,” they said.

“Reporting and monitoring how the president as a public figure carries out public responsibilities and duties are an essential part of democracy. We cannot repress our astonishment that the presidential office confuses reporters' use of the presidential plane with the use of private property and sees it as charity extended by Yoon Suk Yeol the individual," the statement read.

The groups compared the incident to when the White House, under former US President Donald Trump, suspended the press pass of CNN correspondent Jim Acosta after he had a heated conversation with Trump during a news conference.

Seoul-based newspaper Hankyoreh voluntarily gave up its seats on Yoon's plane to protest the “undemocratic attempt at media control” and said its reporters will be using commercial flights to cover the meetings in Southeast Asia.

It wasn't immediately clear whether other news organisations were planning to reject the presidential flight in solidarity with MBC.

In September, MBC caught Yoon on tape talking to his aides and top diplomats following a brief chat with Biden on the margins of the UN General Assembly meetings. While the audio was unclear, Yoon could be heard using what seemed as indecent language during comments the broadcaster captioned as: “Wouldn't it be too darn embarrassing for Biden if those idiots at legislature don't approve?”

Yoon's meeting with Biden came after they both delivered speeches in support of the Global Fund, an international campaign to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. The Biden administration has pledged USD 6 billion in US contributions to the initiative through 2025, but it's pending congressional approval. Yoon's government has promised USD 100 million.

Yoon's office later insisted he wasn't talking about the US Congress or Biden. Kim Eun-hye, Yoon's spokesperson, said he was expressing concern that South Korea's opposition-controlled National Assembly could reject his plans for the $100 million contribution.

She insisted that the word MBC heard as Biden was actually “nal-li-myeon,” an expression that can be used to describe something being thrown away.

After returning to Seoul, Yoon said that the media could put South Korea's security in danger by “damaging the alliance with reports that differ from facts.” He has yet to specifically address whether he described South Korean lawmakers as “idiots.”

Yoon's predecessors have also been accused of suppressing freedom of speech.

Former liberal President Moon Jae-in faced international criticism after members of his ruling party in 2019 singled out a Bloomberg reporter with South Korean nationality over what they insisted was a “borderline traitorous” article, resulting in threats to the reporter's safety.

The article's headline described Moon acting as the “top spokesman” of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the UN General Assembly and described his efforts to salvage faltering nuclear diplomacy with the North.

Under Moon's conservative predecessor Park Geun-hye, prosecutors indicted a Japanese journalist on charges of defaming Park by citing salacious rumours about her whereabouts on the day of a ferry sinking that killed more than 300 people in 2014.

Before Park, former President Lee Myung-bak was criticised for arresting an anti-government blogger and accused of turning major news networks into his mouthpieces by filling their leadership with supporters and having them compete over a small number of new TV licenses issued by his government.

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