Dark Times For Press Freedom, It's True

Dangerous job
Dangerous job
Jillian Deutsch


PARIS — Someone, somewhere will probably call this fake news.

Reporters Sans Frontières, a Paris-based organization for the protection of journalists and free expression, released its latest annual World Press Freedom Index this morning, and … little good news to report. The Index, which tracks criteria like harassment and violence against journalists and laws protecting reporters and sources in 180 countries, found that nearly everywhere, things got worse in 2016 for journalists.

Among the findings, democratic nations are electing "strongmen," who are using their newfound power to target the press. This has perhaps gotten most attention in the U.S., which fell two spots as newly elected President Donald Trump targeted the press directly, and all of society wrestled with so-called "fake news," "post truth" and alternative facts. But the U.S. is not alone. France's current election is the latest stage on which to watch politicians rail against the press and citizens share false news reports. We'll see where the country stands in next year's report.

Other democracies like Canada, Poland and New Zealand slipped in the rankings following an increasing "obsession with surveillance and violations of the right to the confidentiality of sources." How they've done this varies by country. Germany extended mass surveillance by the government without an exception for journalists; New Zealand passed a law punishing information leaks with a five-year prison sentence; and in Canada, Quebec police spied on at least six investigative journalists.

That the state of press is linked to political changes shouldn't surprise anyone.

But a far more troubling country for press freedom was Turkey, where the government has jailed more than 100 journalists following the July 15 failed coup and the subsequent rise in authoritarian rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Finland and Eritrea both lost their multi-year streaks as the best and worst places for reporters after the Finnish prime minister attempted to halt a news report on a conflict of interest and Eritrea allowed a (closely monitored) film crew into the country, even though it still keeps journalists locked up in secret jails. The respective best and worst places for press freedom in 2016 were Norway and North Korea.

For the Index, published annually since 2002, there were two bright spots this year worth noting: Gambia, which expelled an autocratic president and removed restrictions on previously censored newspapers; and Colombia, where not a single journalist was assassinated for the first time in seven years.

That the state of press is linked to political changes shouldn't surprise anyone. But while we may have sensed that 2016 was a bad year for press freedom, the latest Reporters Sans Frontières rankings now offers some solid evidence that, yes, this news is very real.

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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