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Ad Campaign Blasts Seoul for ‘Media Censorship’ in Wake of Ferry Tragedy

New America Media

By Aruna Lee

A group of Korean immigrants in the U.S. are planning to run a full-page ad in the New York Times condemning South Korean President Park Geun-hye and members of her government for their handling of a ferry tragedy that made global headlines in April, reports the Korean-language news website, Newsis.com. The sinking of the passenger ship claimed the lives of some 300 mostly high school youth.

Under the headline, “Sewol Ferry Has Sunk, So Has the Park Administration,” the advertisement slated for the New York Times depicts a drawing of the doomed ferry, slipping underwater off South Korea’s coast. Overlaid on the image are numbers relating to the death toll, the average age of those who perished, and the number of days that lapsed before rescue efforts were undertaken.

Efforts to raise money for the ad began in April when the user of a popular online forum for immigrant Korean women in the United States, called Missy USA, posted the following: “Let’s place an ad in the New York Times to press charges against the South Korean government for its incompetence and media control.”

A campaign was launched soon after on the popular crowd-funding site Indiegogo.com. Visitors to the campaign page are greeted with the message: “Bungled rescue efforts. Fabricated mainstream news coverage. Loss of 300 innocent lives. SK Government MUST take full responsibility of their man-made disaster!”

Within days, some 400 people had come forward with offers to donate. That number has since grown to nearly 3,000, with donations totaling $135,000 as of this writing. The campaign runs through May 29, with the ad expected to run soon thereafter.

The organizers say their aim is to increase scrutiny of the South Korean government over its alleged mishandling of the rescue effort, and for limiting news media’s ability to report about the tragedy and its aftermath.

The campaign’s home page states: “While this event has raised specific concerns about the Park Administration’s disaster control efforts, it has also ignited outrage over a larger issue in South Korea; government censorship and the suppression of free speech.”

As an example, the campaign website notes that mainstream South Korean media reported the government had “launched a massive rescue operation, including around 600 divers, 70 rescue vessels, and 29 airplanes” shortly after the sinking. Family members of the victims challenged those figures, however, saying they saw no such operation until days after it had been reported.

The campaign also alleges many of the surviving family members were told by South Korean officials that their social media postings would be monitored for any comments critical of the government. These allegations have not been verified, though another incident involving a Korean reporter in Germany shows South Korean officials there demanding she retract statements in a German publication painting the Park administration in a bad light.

“These people (the South Korean government) are most afraid of international media, not their own citizens,” wrote one member of the L.A. group on the campaign site.

The Sewol sank hours after departing from the western port city of Incheon carrying 476 passengers, 324 of them students from Danwon High School in the city of Ansan, just south of the capital, Seoul. The students were on an annual holiday to the resort island of Jeju.

Recovered footage from the cell phones of those on board show students cowering in place as the ship lists badly after a sharp turn in notoriously treacherous waters. The ship’s speakers can be heard blaring directions from crew for students not to flee.

Rescue efforts were called off Tuesday, with the death toll standing at 263 with 39 still missing. One rescue diver perished after losing consciousness while searching the sunken vessel. According to reports four officials with the ferry’s operator were arrested Tuesday for overloading the ship.

“As the President, who must protect the lives of the people, I am sorry and heavy-hearted,” Park told media while visiting a temple in central Seoul, as the country celebrates Buddha’s birthday. “I am at a loss what to say to console the families who lost young students.”

Park singled out collusive ties between shipping agencies, inspectors and government ministries. Harking back to earlier disasters, including a collapsed mall in 1995 that killed over 500, Park vowed to root out these “deep rooted evils of the past.”

For campaign organizers, those evils also include “oppression of free speech and abuse of government authority.” With the funds they’ve raised, they plan to take that message to a global audience.

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