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[Reporter’s column] Sex crime and the South Korean media

Back in 2014, the Ministry of Gender Equality and Journalists Association of Korea released a guideline for Korean journalists to use when reporting on sexual violence and interviewing the victims.

The booklet was developed as a number of news reports allegedly inflicted secondary victimization upon sex crime victims here, including violation of privacy. Some even endorsed distortion of sexual assault – such as how the extent of a woman’s resistance should be the major factor in determining if a rape has occurred.

About two years have passed, and a series of media reports on the recent gang rape case which occurred in a remote island in the nation’s Sinan Country makes one question whether the guideline has simply been futile.

It’s meaningless to describe what the reports have done in detail – in short, the reports exposed unnecessary information about the victim, such as her job, her age and other personal history while not doing the same about the suspects. It is as meaningless to question whether the reports had any intention to serve its very basic duty – to serve public interest.

As journalists, those who work in the media get to move on after writing a story. But those who they write about will most likely be tied to the story for a long time, especially in Korea where stigma against sexual violence victims prevails.

Rather than failing to recognize the professional duty to understand the impact of one’s story, and even inflict secondary victimization, it would be better not to publish any stories about any sexual assault at all.

Journalism indeed is business, but making profit by exploiting some of the most traumatic and painful experiences of the vulnerable cannot be justified in any way.

In 2012, when a 7-year-old child was raped by a man in his 20s in Naju, South Jeolla Province, many media outlets stressed that the door of the girl’s house wasn’t locked and she was left unattended by her parents. The victim was kidnapped while sleeping in the house alone and was raped under a bridge in the town. Her mother, who was at an Internet cafe at the time of the event, received public criticism for “not protecting her child properly” after some media reports portrayed her as a game addict while describing her spouse as an irresponsible father.

Many TV reporters also filmed the victim’s house without the mother’s consent, and used electricity in the house without asking. After the footage of the property was broadcast nationwide, the family said they had “no choice but to move” as they felt their reputation was ruined and lost anonymity at the same time. One of the media outlets, in fact, found the wounded victim in the hospital before her parents arrived, photographed her injured body parts and published them without discussing it with her parents. Other reports also revealed the father’s monthly income, which he never agreed to share with the media.

In 2011, a newspaper published inaccurate information about a sexual assault victim, after only interviewing the male suspect’s mother and getting her interpretation of what happened. The victim eventually filed a defamation suit against the media outlet, after the suspect was ruled guilty by the court.

Many reports here have also been inappropriately labeling female victims of sexual assault, using such terms as the “luggage woman case” or the “gastrointestinal endoscopy woman case.” For example, the “luggage women case” refers to a case in which a 49-year-old man, named Kim Il-gon, killed a woman in her 30s after kidnapping her last year. He put her body in a luggage and eventually set fire to a vehicle with the luggage inside. Instead of calling the case the “Kim Il-gon case,” the media has been associating it with the victim’s gender.

The “gastrointestinal endoscopy woman case,” refers to a case in which a woman was sexually assaulted by a physician while she was receiving her gastrointestinal endoscopy which required sedation.

As it is a media culture far beyond the control of a simple guidebook, there should be stronger measures against news reports that inflict secondary victimization upon sex crime victims. It seems like no one is responsible for the media’s constant failure to fulfill its professional obligation to protect those it writes about. Perhaps what we need is a stronger legislation that guarantees one’s rights to privacy and dignity against irresponsible media coverages.

By Claire Lee (