The curious birth of an activist NGO (in the Web 2.0 era)

It started with protests against American beef imports. Criticisms were first directed towards the president, his ministers and his party (the GNP) for having hastened the deal to please Washington despite the declining credibility of U.S. food regulation. The target was then swiftly expanded to the conservative media troika (i.e. Chosun Ilbo, JoongAng Ilbo, and Dong-A Ilbo, more commonly referred to by an acronym Chojoongdong) altogether holding more than 70% of the newspaper market share. Closely connected by marriage chains with chaebol [* South Korean form of business conglomerates] and political elites of the country, Chojoongdong is known to explicitly represent the vested interests of the Korean establishment. What angers the public on this particular occasion is the fact that it was the three national dailies that had warned their readerships of the dangers of mad cow disease from American beef under the previous liberal government and attacked the then president Roh for considering resuming the import process, which would “endanger the people’s health”. Barely a year later, they now go completely back on their word and appreciate Lee’s “economically wise decision” and criticise “irrational protesters”. It was the very “irrational protesters” who retrieved the relevant old articles and threw them back in the face of Chojoongdong.

Media reform movements have been around long before this beef affair. However, what I would like to note here is the development in the MOs. Media reform activists in earlier days concentrated on informing the general public of “Chojoongdong‘s evil acts”. This didn’t yield much of visible outcomes though because, in the words of the activists I personally met, it was a battle between David and Goliath. Even though members of such activist groups raise money among themselves for the distribution of free flyers, it’s almost impossible to override Chojoongdong‘s daily circulation of 5 to 6 million copies. Scholars like Glenn Reynolds argue that the Internet creates new opportunities for smaller, resource-poor individuals and organisations so that they can “beat big media, big government and other Goliaths”, but at least in this case the Goliaths invested a lot into their Web businesses, too. For example, Chosun Ilbo’s Web site marks the 1,368th in the Alexa traffic rankings while Joase [* a Korean acronym for ‘a beautiful world without Chosun Ilbo’, a most well-known activist group for media reform] does not feature in the top 100,000.

The so-called Web 2.0 Generation take a different approach. They set up an online community on a portal site Daum and collectively create and maintain a list of companies that currently place their adverts in the three dailies. Then individual members phone up the companies whenever it is convenient for each of them and tell the companies that they would boycott their products unless the adverts are withdrawn. And this time it seems working. As more and more companies do withdraw their adverts from Chojoongdong, the media troika, who wouldn’t even have blinked to the usual anti-Chojoongdong slogans, promptly started to pressurise lawmakers and law enforcement. As a result, most of the postings on the community’s bulletin board have been permanently deleted by the Korea Communications Commission (KCC), and foreign travel bans have been imposed on 20 members holding the administrative responsibilities of the community by the prosecution. Meanwhile, the GNP has announced its support for the KCC’s decision by stating boycotting the companies advertising in Chojoongdong is equal to “threatening the freedom of the press and disturbing market order”. The ruling party has also announced that it will propose regulations against inappropriate activities on portal sites.

The story doesn’t end here. As their community Web pages cannot serve them any more, members have created a publicly accessible Google document instead (link here). It’s a simple list of companies updated daily, which in itself violates no laws or regulations. The document is written in Korean, but if I translate the last sentence at the bottom of the spreadsheet (in red) for you, it goes: “This is a simple list of companies. No entities of Korea shall have a legal ground to request the global corporation Google to have it deleted or limited.” All an individual online user now has to do is to bookmark the link if he/she likes to follow which companies carry on advertising in Chojoongdong and which ones have withdrawn. It’s up to the individual to boycott or not, or to phone up the relevant companies and express the intention to boycott or not.

The latest news in this regard I have heard is that given the legal hassles the community has been winding up in, it is now preparing to have itself registered as an NGO.

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