In South Korea, an innovative online news website is presenting investigative journalism in video form. And it is a big hit.
On Dec. 19, 2012, as Korea’s presidential election night approached its end, it became clear that the candidate from the ruling party, Park Geun-Hye, was going to become the next president. Some of us, at a journalist union conference room where we used to use as our temporary newsroom for a year, some of us at a pub, and some of us at our home, watched the election night live news grimly. It was a tight race, but at the end, the ruling party that had full control over big broadcast stations and newspapers took the victory. We were a non-partisan media unit, but we couldn’t help but be disappointed about the result. From the start, it was an unfair game with the mainstream media’s support on the back of the major party.
We were the lone watchdogs. Most of us were journalists that got dismissed for leading strikes to stand up for fair coverage on mainstream media. Some were from newspapers, but most were from broadcast stations like KBS, MBC and YTN for carry out good journalism temporarily. After the election period, we were going to disband. But something words can’t do it justice happened the day after the election. The public started to join our donation membership, longing for true journalism in South Korea. Within some days, more than a thousand new people joined our donation membership. By the end of the month after the election, we had nearly 15 thousand new donors.
After long and deep discussion, we decided to change our initial plan to disassemble after the election period and turn this small temporary unit into a sustainable one. We could not ignore the public demand for fair and in-depth investigative journalism. So began in February 2013, Korea Center for Investigative Journalism. The name we used for our project in the past year, Newstapa, became KCIJ’s proud news brand.
The birth of Newstapa was a result of Korea’s unique political and media situation, and is part of the growth of non-profit investigative news organizations in global dimension. Lee Myung-bak Administration had taken control of the media since its inauguration in 2008 by appointing the President’s confidants as CEOs of public Broadcasting System, public news agency. It has given comprehensive broadcasting channels to a huge conservative newspaper company, and as a result, the ecosystem of the media has been devastated.
Following this, journalists who criticized the government’s policy and demanded the independence of the media could find themselves fired for no apparent reason. 15 journalists were laid off at that time. I myself was suspended for 4 months for criticizing the Lee Myung Bak administration, after having worked for KBS for more than 25 years as an investigative reporter. That is why I decided to quit KBS and started Newstapa At that time, there were demands for new media models such as CIR, CPI or ProPublica in the U.S. There was a consensus that we needed to come up with this kind of new media model. These two factors led to the launch of Newstapa.
When we first uploaded our news program on Jan. 17. 2012, there were only 8 journalists on our team, half of them were laid-off journalists. We barely made enough to pay ourselves. All we had were two small video cameras and a computer for editing video. We did not even have an office, studio, so we had to work in a conference room at the National Union of Mediaworkers. The Union supported us for 6 months, providing us with a budget of 20 million won, or 20 thousand dollars, for travel expenses for news coverages and production costs.
At the beginning, we would upload a 50-minute newsmagazine show to YouTube and Podcast once a week. We would cover 3 to 4 topics per program, with a focus on important and crucial issues that were being neglected by the mainstream media. We were brand new and nobody’s ever heard of us. So we took advantage of SNS like Twitter and Facebook to promote our news. Our first show got close to a million views on YouTube. Newstapa’s Twitter account now has 210,000 followers. Our Kakaostory, a mobile messenger, has 115,000 subscribers, which is a record hit for a media company in Korea. Almost 100,000 people subscribe to our YouTube channel.
We have a unique revenue stream model. We do not accept advertisements or sponsorship. We are run only by small donations from the public. We started taking donations in July of 2012, and in the span of 6 months, we reached about 7,000 donors. After the presidential election in 2012, the number jumped to 20,000. People who were disappointed at the election coverage took an interest in what we were doing and started to support us. After our tax haven project in collaboration with the ICIJ in 2013, the number of donors surged by 5,000, and after our coverage of the Sewol Ferry tragedy in 2014 it rose again, by a similar amount. So I can tell that people respond to original, meaningful investigative news coverage. Today, 35,000 people make donations on a regular basis, while the number of people who make irregular donations is up to several tens of thousands. Our average donor contributes about 10 dollars a month. Our subscribers receive an alert via text message when a new report has been uploaded to our Youtube channel, and they also receive regular letters from the Editor-in-chief. We also have begun to distribute calendars and reminder stickers to the donation members.
Our mission statement defines KCIJ as a non-profit, non-partisan and independent media organization. And the name, News (‘news’ in Korean)-Tapa (“tear down” in Korean) literally means news that “tears down” old news that is not newsworthy. We pursue investigative reporting that provides social criticism through coverage that is free from bias. We play the role that the media was originally meant to fulfill – to focus on abusive power, failure to uphold the public interest, and to keep the public informed.
Since we were established, we have received approximately 30 major media awards, including the Korea Journalist Awards Special Award from the Journalists Association of Korea, among others.
Here I’ll give a brief introduction of 3 major stories most extensively covered in 2014, which received lots of distinguished awards. They are the evidence forgery case involving the NIS, the Sewol ferry disaster and irregularities in the nuclear energy sector.
The first report concerns the NIS. The National Intelligence Service is like the CIA of Korea. The service is infamous for implications in political conspiracies and manipulations. The case that we uncovered is quite shocking to say the least. The case can be viewed in terms of two standpoints: first, the unique nature of the divided Korean Peninsula and second, the common traits of illegal clandestine operations and the opaqueness of all intelligence agencies around the world.
When Korea was under authoritarian regimes in the past years, the NIS concocted a great deal of espionage scandals to suppress anti-government rebels with the misuse of the National Security Law. This was in order to exaggerate the threat posed by North Korea and thus justify dictatorship rule. Such fabrication of spy scandals mostly disappeared since Korea’s democratization but cases involving espionage charges began to increase since Park Geun-hye became president in 2013. Park is the daughter of former dictator Park Chung-hee.
In January 2013, the NIS and the prosecution announced the indictment of a man named Yoo Woo-seong on charges of violating the National Security Law. Yoo was a Chinese national who defected from North Korea and settled in South Korea, working as a civil servant for the Seoul Metropolitan Government.
His main charge was that he handed over personnel information of North Korean defectors living in the South to the North Korean government. This charge was based on a testimony of his younger sister who also fled North Korea to follow her brother.
A group of progressive attorneys held a news conference saying that the sister gave false testimony after she was detained in solitary confinement at the NIS interrogation center for 179 days. She suffered violence and abusive treatment and was lured to give the testimony in exchange for obtaining South Korean citizenship. This news conference failed to attract any media attention but KCIJ decided to look into this case.
Our reporters first examined every piece of evidence presented by the NIS and the prosecution. According to the NIS, Yoo sent a list of names of North Korean defectors in South Korea via the Internet to his sister Yoo Ga-ryeo in China. Then she would download the file at an Internet cafe and send the list to North Korea’s state security agency. Our team discovered the Internet cafe in China and used a computer there to try to download a Korean language or hangeul file. But we couldn’t do so because there was no word program for hangeul to download texts in Korean.
The NIS also said the brother and sister exchanged files using the Chinese QQ Messenger service between February and May of 2011. But we found out that the sister joined the messenger service for the first time in June that year.
The NIS also submitted as evidence a photo taken with a mobile phone that Yoo took when he secretly entered the North. But our team has confirmed, based on Yoo’s iPhone location data, that the photo was shot in Yanbian, China. Following reports by Newstapa, the court cleared Yoo of the espionage charge in the first trial. The NIS and prosecutors went all out to prove Yoo’s spying charge in the appeal trial. They argued that Yoo traveled to North Korea several times, and submitted entry records issued by Chinese border control to prove this fact. They also presented notarized papers showing the records were real as well as a confirmation letter from the South Korean consulate in China testifying that the records were received through an official diplomatic channel.
Thus began a 2nd round battle between the NIS and KCIJ. Our repoters flew to China to confirm the issuance of papers at the mentioned agency. We were shocked to hear the agency say “We don’t have issuing rights. The papers were forged with a fake stamp.” Back home, we reported our findings. Following our media report, the court sent a letter to the Chinese government to confirm whether the records submitted by the NIS as official Chinese document were in fact issued in China. Their response came in February saying that all the records were fabricated.
The case turned into a huge scandal by this time. The NIS director, the prosecutor general and even the President issued apologies. A special team of prosecutors launched an investigation that led to the indictment of three NIS agents. Two Korean-Chinese who forged the papers at the order of NIS were also indicted. In the first sentencing, they received prison terms of up to 2 and a half years.
NIS investigators then filed libel charges against myself and one of our producers Choi Seung-ho. A civil suit was also lodged, demanding compensation of some 135-thousand dollars. In the civil case, the court recently dismissed the NIS’ lawsuit.
If it were not for our center’s yearlong investigative reporting, Yoo may have been convicted on the spying charge and would have been suffered a long prison sentence. All of NIS’ manipulative acts would have also gone unnoticed.
Now l move on to KCIJ’s coverage of the Sewol ferry incident. A large ferry carrying a total of 476 passengers and crew members sank in the Yellow Sea west of the Korean Peninsula in the morning of April 16. Most of the passengers were high school students on a field trip. Well into the noon of this fateful day, Korean broadcasters and newspapers reported that all passengers had been rescued, which will go down in history as the most erroneous news report ever. The false reports were made while in fact the ferry was sinking with hundreds of passengers trapped inside.
Since passengers were known to be trapped inside, the government said that it was mobilizing several hundred ships and aircraft for rescue operations and that hundreds of divers were also conducting underwater searches. Mainstream news media echoed what the government said. However, the government announcement was a lie. Newstapa crew went to the accident site on the very first day and found that nearly no rescue operation was taking place. We accurately reported our findings. The number of YouTube views of our report exceeded one million.
Our data team researched various records from the parliament, government, the Korea Shipping Association and the Korean Register of Shipping and unveiled more revealing facts: that the ferry was an outdated vessel imported from Japan and an additional floor was built onto the ship to increase cabin rooms. We also found that the maximum period for operating outdated ships was extended through lobbying.
Through a review of budget records, we also revealed that the Korea Coast Guard was seriously lacking in coastal rescue equipment and was not conducting proper maritime drills over cost concerns. But the Coast Guard was meanwhile constructing an exclusive golf course for coast guardsmen. After watching our reports, many viewers conveyed support saying they were now aware of the true facts behind the disaster. Victims’ families also sent us photos, messages and files that were saved in the mobile phones of their deceased children. This clip was shot by one of the student victims Park Su-hyeon with his cell phone at the time of the sinking. Newstapa relayed this footage with subtitles but with no editing from the original full version. It was watched on YouTube 1.5 million times. The New York Times also quoted our report.
Newstapa’s coverage of the ferry sinking was a combination of onsite field reporting, combing through records, and voluntary reports filed by citizens. Our center also created a digital archive titled the “Truth and record of the Sewol ferry” on our Web site. The archive is a compilation of all records that could possibly be gathered, including Coast Guard and Fisheries Ministry reports, parliamentary probe records and victim testimonies. The archive is accessible to other media firms and ordinary citizens, and the contents are continuously being updated.
Following the Sewol incident, the issue of public safety became the hottest buzz word in Korea. One of the most important safety concerns centered on nuclear power plants. The question was if these nuclear plants were being safely managed.
There are 23 nuclear plants in operation in Korea. Especially in the case of Gori and Wolseong plants, some 3.4 million people reside within a 15 kilometer radius of these plants. Such plants located in populated areas are called mega sites because should any incident occur, it can result in enormous casualties. Therefore safety management cannot possibly be overemphasized.
Unfortunately a close look into Korea’s nuclear power industry exposes a mafia like structure where profit taking precedes safety concerns. Bribes, irregularities and crimes are rampant. From 2012 to 2013, more than 70 employees at the Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Company were indicted over nuke power plant-related charges.
We first began by filing a request with plant authorities for information disclosure. We also acquired court verdicts related to convicted power plant employees. Valuable information, including budgets, was contained in a total of 169 rulings we got a hold of. Our reporters also examined almanacs and statistics that have been annually published by the nuclear industry, and used CAR(Computer Assisted Reporting) in analyzing the data.
Our team that delved into the nuclear mafia issue, released over 30 reports so far since September 18. We were the first to obtain revenue records of 43-hundred firms that signed supply contracts with the Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Company over the past 8 years. We followed the trail of irregularities regarding supply contracts worth some 4.5 billion dollars a year.
We were also the first to reveal that prominent nuclear scholars received a maximum 17 percent share in nuclear firms for free. Newstapa reporting unveiled the cartel structure of the so-called nuclear industry mafias, as well as major loopholes in the computer security system at two nuclear power plants that are supposed to be the highest level security establishments in the country. Our reports have helped bring about government measures on nuclear safety. Through other numerous reports, Newstapa raised public awareness on the issue of nuclear safety.
KCIJ was created for this very purpose of investigative journalism. We stand alone in Korea as a media entity capable of this kind of reporting. Now KCIJ’s news and administrative staffs are 40, regular Newstapa is currently uploaded twice a week on the website, YouTube, Podcast and a public access cable channel, RTV. Each episode consists of 3 to 4 news clips that are 5 to 20 minutes long. Our accumulated view counts on YouTube are now in excess of 23 million hits.
Yongjin Kim is editor-in-chief and CEO of Newstapa, an online news website that presents watchdog journalism in video form. Newstapa is run by the Korea Center for Investigative Journalism (KCIJ) and it is the first non-profit online investigative reporting organization in South Korea. Yongjin Kim formerly headed an investigative reporting unit at the Korean Broadcasting System (KBS), the country’s national public broadcaster.