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[Editorial] Threat to freedom of speech

Bill puts press arbitration under watch of ministry, adds excessive punitive damages

An amendment bill on press arbitration proposed by Choe Kang-wook and two other lawmakers of the Open Democratic Party and nine lawmakers of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea was referred to a National Assembly committee on Monday.

They say it was drawn up to remedy the damage caused by fake news, but it seriously threatens freedom of speech, one of the most important roots of democracy.

Its point is to change the Press Arbitration Commission into the Press Commission and place it under the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.

The arbitration commission is currently a civil organization independent of the government. This is for the sake of protecting the impartiality of its deliberations.

Placing such a commission under the watch of the government is not much different from trying to control news media directly.

Even Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism Hwang Hee, who doubles as a lawmaker of the ruling party, went so far as to say that the commission is a quasi-judicial institution requiring independence. He said it was difficult to accept the amendment.

Currently, commissioners elect the chairman of the commission from among themselves. The bill requires the president to appoint the chairman. It creates a new position called a permanent commissioner and requires the number of the new posts to exceed 10. They are appointed by the minister or the president.

Under the current law, neither government officials nor members of a political party can become commissioners. This is a measure to guarantee political neutrality and independence for fair arbitration. But the amendment deleted the ban.

The bill increases the number of commissioners from 90 to 120 and requires the commission to fill two-sevenths of them with those experienced in the fields of human rights and media monitoring. This, too, raises questions if the bill was intended to give commissioner posts to members of pro-government civic groups and figures hostile to media that are critical of the current government.

As if the bill proponents are not satisfied with just controlling the commission, they added punitive damages. But it is likely that the penalties will be judged unconstitutional.

The amendment requires media to pay damages to the aggrieved party more than the “profits attributable to reports in question.” The profits are daily sales times the number of days from the day when a report was first published to the day when it was deleted. It is absurd to regard sales as profits attributable to reports. It looks malicious to demand such excessively heavy damages particularly from the press.

A National Assembly research report noted that other bills that stipulate punitive damages restrict the maximum limit of damages to three times the actual damage. It is problematic to apply a different yardstick to media only.

It goes against common sense to slap tremendous damages on the press in a democracy with the constitution respecting freedom of expression.

Punitive damages imposed on media may constitute illegal double punishment because damage reliefs such as criminal punishment and civilian compensation are already in place.

Furthermore, the Choe Kang-wook bill places the burden of proof on the press.

A newspaper bill proposed by Lee Su-jin, a Democratic Party lawmaker, requires newspaper companies to set up their “editorial committees” and portal sites to disclose their rules on news arrangement.

Under the bill, newspaper companies must form editorial committees consisting of management officials and reporters. The committees lay down editorial bylaws. Managing editors are appointed from those recommended by the committees.

Demanding civilian news organizations make editorial bylaws or intervening in their organizational and personnel matters is an obvious act of controlling the press.

An array of damage relief channels such as the Press Arbitration Commission, the Korea Communications Standards Commission, criminal accusations, and civilian compensation for damages are available. And yet, the ruling party and its satellite party are pushing the bills that can be used to oppress freedom of speech. It is questionable if they intend to block unfavorable reports ahead of the presidential election next year.

The ruling party suffered crushing defeats in the April 7 by-elections. Voters judged it sternly over its dogmatic politics. If it attempts to tame the press with the presidential election in mind, the judgment will be harsher. It must stop attempting to control the press.