SEOUL — A hugely popular podcast that satirises the president and his conservative government has become a political phenomenon in South Korea as the country prepares for elections next year.
"Naneun Ggomsuda" (I'm a Cheat) claims to have attracted the world's largest number of podcast listeners -- some six million -- since it launched in April.
The main butt of its mockery and alleged revelations is 69-year-old President Lee Myung-Bak and his ruling conservative party. Lee is sarcastically referred to as "His Highness".
Analysts say the show helped sway Seoul's mayoral election in October in favour of a left-leaning independent, when younger voters disenchanted with the current national government turned out in their thousands.
"It's also going to have a great sway over voters during the National Assembly elections in April and the presidential election in December next year," said Choi Jin, president of the Institute for Presidential Leadership think-tank.
The four hosts say their satirical show -- unusual in a country that achieved democracy only in the 1980s -- is a counterweight to media giants that they say are biased towards the conservatives.
"We've created this talk show as we ourselves wanted to listen to voices conveying the truth," Chung Bong-Joo, a former opposition lawmaker, told journalists recently.
"We don't belong to any capitalist moguls but only to the people who have a thirst for the truth."
Chung said many listeners make cash donations or buy T-shirts and tickets for offline versions of their shows to help meet costs.
Another host, Kim Ou-Joon -- who launched South Korea's first Internet radio station in 1998 -- said the development of online social networking systems empowered the grassroots.
"By putting the right messages through right platforms such as smartphones, individuals can now fight against the giant media establishment," Kim said.
The show's guiding principle, he said, is "Don't Chicken Out". The government, he alleged, seeks to scare critics by threatening libel lawsuits or demoting journalists in state-run media organisations.
Freedom House, a Washington-based NGO, downgraded South Korea's media status from "free" to "partly free" this year.
It said this reflected what it called an increase in official censorship, particularly of online content, and "the government's attempt to influence media outlets' news and information".
The government flatly denies it has ever attempted to influence news media.
Since Lee's inauguration in 2008, said Freedom House, "South Korea has experienced a noticeable decline in freedom of expression for both journalists and the general public".
Professor Jae Jeong-Im of Semyung University in the central city of Jecheon said the popularity of "Naneun Ggomsuda" reflects a widespread belief that mainstream media are "not delivering the truth, for the sake of partisan or company interests".
But Jae told AFP it was not desirable that many of the public have more trust in a non-traditional medium than in the media establishment.
Critics says the show pursues sensationalism at the expense of hard facts.
"I dare say this is part of yellow (sensationalised or biased) journalism," said political science professor Shin Yul of Seoul's Myongji University, adding that "Naneun Ggomsuda" mixes the facts with unproven speculation.
Thursday's Korea Times said conservative papers should reflect on whether they had been faithful to their foremost duty of checking those in power.
But "Naneun Ggomsuda", it said in an editorial, "needs to rethink its one-sided ideological partialness, refine its expressions and most of all, filter unverified allegations".
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