South Korea’s so-called “trial of the century” has seen Samsung’s crown prince Lee Jae-yong, the company’s vice-chairman, accused of bribing ousted president Park Geun-hye – but it has also shone new light on the depths of the electronics firm’s media manipulation.
The company is awaiting this Friday’s verdict on several of Samsung’s current and former top executives, for their alleged involvement in a political scandal that has rocked South Korea. Lee could face a 12-year jail term if convicted of bribing Park to push through a controversial merger in 2014.
One strand of the trial has prompted national debate on Samsung’s oversized influence. Leaked text messages sent to one of the Samsung executives on trial, used as part of the prosecutor’s evidence against the company, have suggested some parts of the national media may have been prepared to collude with Samsung..
The messages sent in August 2016 to Samsung’s former top lobbyist Jang Chung-gi were first published by media outlets Sisain and Media Today in July and August. They include numerous requests for favours made by media executives and journalists, sent while he was deputy chief of Samsung’s group corporate strategy office. They paint an unambiguous picture of the power dynamic at play, with meticulous use of Korean honorifics and a strikingly deferential tone.
One text message from managing editor Kim Byeong-jik at South Korean daily Munhwa Ilbo asks Jang to grant the paper funding in the form of additional advertising contracts, saying: “I apologise for the shameless favour I am about to ask of you … I ask that you take interest in and take care of us on this. I’m sorry. I’ll be sure to repay you in the future with good articles and good papers.”
When Kim was challenged by newspaper watchdog Media Today about the existence of such texts, he said he could not remember any messages from that period. Kim is still managing editor of the Munhwa Ilbo, but both he and the paper declined to comment when contacted. The paper is still going to bat for Samsung. On the day of Lee’s arrest, the paper published an editorial that lamented the event with the headline: “Lee Jae-yong’s arrest and the country where it’s difficult to run a business”.
Another text, from former Seoul Economic Daily executive vice president Park Shi-ryong, reads: “Despite my sense of shame, I ask you for a board directorship [at a Samsung affiliate]. I may not be perfect, but if you give me the opportunity, I will do my best … I’m sorry.”
While having held numerous board directorships at other companies, Park was not appointed to the board of any Samsung affiliate. He formally apologised to the Seoul Economic Daily journalists union explaining that he was no longer with the paper when he sent them. The Seoul Economic Daily said it viewed the text messages as a personal matter for Park and declined to comment further.
An executive at South Korean broadcaster CBS (not to be confused with the US news network), Lee Hee-sang, also begs for forgiveness as he asks Jang to ensure his son’s employment at a Samsung affiliate. His son was not employed by Samsung or any affiliate. CBS and Lee formally and publicly apologised after the incident.
While no repercussions have been obvious at Samsung, the company executives’ legal counsel said during the trial in July: “Most of the senders are personal acquaintances of Jang or journalists, and [the messages] show nothing more than the correspondence of incomplete information.” They also said the text messages “have nothing to do with the charges, and it is hardly strange that the corporate strategy office deputy head, who manages corporate relations, would receive messages from a variety of people.”
But the texts are a window into the troubling relationship between Samsung and the media, which has come under increasing pressure from politicians and freedom of press advocates. The brazenness, and some suggest collusive nature, of the leaked texts has struck a harsh chord with South Koreans, but this is not the first time Samsung has been criticised for suppressing critical media coverage.
An open secret
In one controversial incident in 2006, a high-ranking Samsung executive called current affairs magazine Sisa Journal president Keum Chang-tae and requested that he retract an article about Samsung’s internal politics.
“For no reason other than that Samsung was uncomfortable with it, [Keum] went over our managing editor’s head and had it removed at the printing plant himself,” said Ko Je-kyu, then a political reporter at Sisa Journal, one of South Korea’s news weeklies.
Disciplined for protesting the move, Ko and his colleagues later left Sisa Journal to found Sisain, now the most widely circulated general news weekly in South Korea, which was the first local outlet to publish the leaked messages in full.
While South Korean courts later ruled that the retraction was a violation of editorial integrity, local journalists claim that such practices are commonplace within the industry. “Media companies and Samsung often strike deals before the articles are even written,” said Ko. “They generally go through advertising departments, managing editors or other senior staff.”
Much of Samsung’s leverage is likely to come from its coveted advertising contracts. According to a 2015 study by the economic reform research institute, Samsung is the single largest advertiser in South Korea, and critics have long accused the company of using advertising contracts to strong-arm media outlets.
“The expression we use is ‘buying insurance’, because advertising allows Samsung to exercise influence when negative articles about them get published,” said Ko, now the managing editor of Sisain. “Ultimately, [Samsung’s advertising power] prompts the media to voluntarily censor itself and pledge their loyalty, even without getting a call from Samsung, because they think: ‘if this article gets published, we won’t get advertising from Samsung’.”
While loyalty appears to be rewarded with advertising revenue, dissenting papers have felt the impact of the carrot being replaced by the stick. After left-leaning dailies the Hankyoreh and Kyunghyang Shinmun reported on a press conference that blew the whistle on a Samsung slush fund in 2007, the company conspicuously withdrew the bulk of its ads from the two newspapers, prompting criticisms of “advertisement oppression” from civic groups and media unions. Beset with financial difficulties, the two newspapers were forced to cut and suspend wages, while Samsung denied the allegations.
Media researchers such as Bang Hee-kyung, a senior researcher at the Sogang University institute for media and culture, say such a culture of self-censorship colours coverage of Samsung-related topics. In a recent study analysing media coverage of the Samsung factory workers that fell sick after being exposed to toxic chemicals from 2007 to 2014, Bang found that the majority of mainstream news outlets exhibited a pro-Samsung slant.
“During the first seven years when Samsung was denying these allegations, saying that they were personal illnesses, most of the mainstream media outlets didn’t cover it at all or feature the victim’s voices,” said Bang, “After [the courts] ruled that they were occupational in nature, Samsung had no choice but to issue an apology and suddenly, the media started covering it. They opened their mouth only after Samsung opened theirs.”
The Republic of Samsung
The authority Samsung appears to exercise over South Korean media reflects its special status in the country. The electronics maker, known for its Galaxy series smartphones abroad, enjoys a sweeping influence at home that has earned a nickname for the country: “the Republic of Samsung”.
The largest chaebol (family-owned business conglomerate) in South Korea, Samsung Group affiliates alone account for one fourth of South Korea’s market capitalisation, and the Samsung brand includes everything from semiconductors to life insurance. For many South Koreans, who credit Samsung with the country’s postwar economic boom, the conglomerate has come to symbolise national prosperity and prestige.
“Advertising may be one method of control, but I also think there’s this ‘Samsung ideology’ affecting the media too,” said Bang. “It’s the belief that Samsung is the embodiment of our ‘global competitiveness’ or ‘global leadership’ – that a Samsung crisis is a national one.”
While much of Samsung’s communications strategy might ride on this belief, the leaked correspondence also exposes a cloak-and-dagger approach.
In one message, Jang is briefed on senior appointments at a local economic daily. In another, former Samsung Securities president Hwang Young-ki describes acting Yonhap News managing editor Lee Chang-seob as “one of the many people helping Samsung”. Hwang writes that the two “frequently talk on the phone to discuss the direction of articles” and tells Jang that “[Lee] would like it if you acknowledged him in the future”.
Yonhap News is South Korea’s largest news agency and receives government funding. Lee, now head of the company’s news TV management planning team, could not be reached for comment, but said via the Yonhap News journalists union there is nothing he did that is “personally shameful” in response to the leaked text message.
A Yonhap News spokesperson said: “We are conducting our own internal investigation into the matter and so have no comment to give at this time.”
Others, presumably from one of Jang’s subordinates, mention efforts to censor articles displayed on local internet portals Naver and Daum. “Maybe it’s because we asked the Naver and Daum news teams for their cooperation beforehand, but the morning’s articles have all been hidden from the portals,” reads one message. Another assures Jang that “[the comments section] is being monitored”.
“Until recently, Samsung’s corporate strategy office had people assigned to each individual media outlet, whose job was keeping track of any articles being published about Samsung ahead of time,” said Ko. “These roles are now gone, but in South Korea there were just two organisations that did this with such rigour: the national intelligence service [South Korea’s spy agency], and Samsung.”
Earlier this year, in the wake of its implication in the presidential scandal, Samsung disbanded the corporate strategy office, the clandestine “control tower” that commanded Samsung’s 62 affiliates. According to allegations made in the current trial the office allegedly doled out bribes and oversaw the conglomerate’s lobbying and advertising efforts, which could signal financial hardship for local media denied their biggest client.
Despite calls for the resignation of those involved in the text message scandal, a signed petition from 174 Yonhap journalists denouncing the company’s executives, and statements of condemnation from both the Yonhap journalists and the Seoul Economic Daily journalists unions, the Samsung media machine seems to be working as usual. Coverage of the leaked texts has been limited, and some articles have already disappeared.
Democratic lawmaker Sohn Hye-won said: “I suppose it’s proof that Samsung is still alive and well.”
Jang, once the nation’s most powerful lobbyist, has not made a public statement about the texts and allegations, and could not be reached for comment. He faces 10 years in prison if convicted later on Friday.
Multiple attempts to contact Samsung for comment went unanswered.