Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. placed a 1/3 page advertisement on Jan. 1 on the front pages of 26 major newspapers in South Korea, showing its ubiquitous influence on the country’s media. The newspapers span the political spectrum, from far-right to liberal, and every corner of news coverage, from politics to business to entertainment. Simply put, the 26 newspapers together constitute the country’s national press and the majority of online media.
The Lion’s Share
Since 2010, Samsung has been monopolizing premium front-page advertisements for New Year’s Day as it continues to fare better than the other three of the country’s Big Four conglomerates (Hyundai, SK and LG), according to Media Today, a media watchdog weekly funded by the country’s largest media labor union.
With continuing declines in paid subscriptions, newspapers increasingly look to corporate vendors for revenues. As of 2014, corporate ads made up 60% of the industry’s total revenue, according to Media Today.
Paradoxically, the more liberal a newspaper the more it tends to depend on Samsung as left-leaning papers tend to be smaller and more financial vulnerable than their conservative rivals. The Hankyoreh, the country’s sole independent daily, earns 19.2% of revenue from ads from the country’s Big Four conglomerates.
Pressure and Intimidation
Samsung can swiftly inflict pain on news publications. In 2008-09, The Hankyoreh employees took home half their regular pay as the conglomerate withdrew ads following a series of exposes that corroborated allegations by Kim Yong-chul, Samsung’s in-house lawyer, who blew the whistle on the conglomerate’s massive tax evasion and vast network of bribery inside the judiciary and government bureaucracy.
Parenthetically, Kim’s allegations led to the National Assembly appointing Cho Joon-woong special counsel, who only investigated tax evasion allegations and stopped short of looking into the bribery network. Cho’s son later landed a mid-manager job at Samsung, after multiple failures to pass the bar exam for more than ten years.
To Surrender Or Not To Surrender
Samsung began to place ads in The Hankyoreh again in 2010. The small independent daily did not cave in—at least not entirely. Between Jan. 2007 and Nov. 2013, The Hankyoreh ran a total of 154 news reports on Samsung’s occupational disease cluster, about ten times more than an average conservative daily, Media Today said, citing a survey by a media institute at Sogang University in Seoul.
However, Samsung’s intimidation often works, tacitly or otherwise. In Sept. 2014, Electronic Times, also known as ETNews, ran a long apology and corrections about six months after Samsung cut off ads over a report about components in short supply for its flagship Galaxy S5 smartphone and pressed a $284,000 libel lawsuit against the reporter.
Samsung’s dominance of the media market explains why many journalists and editors feel intimidated into kowtowing to the conglomerate and why there is scant press coverage of its occupational disease cluster and victims.
It also explains why many South Korean journalists often gloss over the facts and smear SHARPS and the cluster victims for whom it advocates. It is typical of these journalists to depict SHARPS’s campaign as a menace to Samsung at what they claim is a time when Japanese frontrunners still outperform the conglomerate and Chinese rivals rapidly catch up with it.
Pushing The Envelope
In Oct. 2015, Han Ju-yeop, staff writer with ETNews, pushed the envelope even further by developing his own conspiracy theory.
In commenting on a report by Simon Mundy on the Samsung Cluster for The Financial Times, Han said: “The Financial Times, of the UK, acquired by Nihon Keizai Shinbun of Japan, reported groundless allegations, scathing South Korea’s semiconductor industry.”