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[Editorial] Protect press freedom

Ruling party to pass media bills unilaterally, choking critics and denying right to know

The ruling Democratic Party of Korea is pushing for a bill that would make media outlets pay punitive damages for false reports.

The party convened a meeting of the bill deliberation subcommittee of the parliamentary Culture, Sports and Tourism Committee on Tuesday and tabled a number of bills. These included one to revise the Act on Press Arbitration and Remedies for Damage Caused by Press Reports.

The main opposition People Power Party condemned the ruling party for convening the subcommittee meeting unilaterally, without prior consultations. People Power Party lawmakers did not attend the meeting in protest.

The proposal primarily aims to multiply, up to fivefold, the level of damages that courts could award in cases where someone is harmed by a deliberately false news report or one where gross negligence leads to a falsehood.

If a news media outlet publishes a false report, it should assume responsibility. Be that as it may, those in power must not use a misreport as an excuse to scare the media out of making critical reports.

That appears to be the aim of the Democratic Party’s bill.

Punitive damages are usually awarded after serious industrial accidents. It seems out of step with common sense to apply them to the area of media reporting, which is expected to serve the public interest by satisfying people’s right to know. One of the biggest problems is that such monetary sanctions would very likely be used to suppress press freedom.

The penalties would likely trigger a flood of litigation. Lawsuits by groups with grudges against certain media outlets could increase, too.

The problem of false news is currently covered by existing civil and criminal laws, which make it possible to seek damages and criminal punishment for defamation and insult. To add punitive damages would be excessive. Remedies for victims, such as corrections printed after a false report, are already available through the Press Arbitration Commission.

Besides, most fake news comes from social media platforms, which the bill excludes. It targets major media.

If the ruling party is truly worried about damage caused by fake news, it might first try to find some way of preventing politicians and officials from covering up suspicions.

On numerous occasions, the presidential office, government officials and lawmakers have denied allegations raised by news media, offering counterarguments based on insufficient evidence and window-dressed data.

For example, even though the state-assessed values of apartments in Seoul have soared more than 80 percent over the past four years, the presidential office said housing prices had risen just 17 percent. It has likewise varnished over statistics on employment and income distribution.

The ruling party suffered a crushing defeat in the April 7 by-elections. Angered by its double standards and failed real estate policies, voters turned their backs on the current regime. And yet it did not reflect on its faults but blamed the press. It must stop trying to gag critical media.

Another bill that would impact the news media seeks to revise a law on government advertising. It would introduce a “media voucher” system under which people would be asked if they “liked” or “disliked” certain newspapers. The government would assess the influence of particular media based on their popularity and would allocate its advertisement budget accordingly.

Civic groups affiliated with the government would most likely be mobilized to vote. They would of course vote for the newspapers most pleasing to their palates. One must wonder if the ruling party intends to tame the press through government advertising. This absurd idea must be scrapped.

The Democratic Party says the bills under discussion are not in their final form, but it is expected to pass them almost as they are in a plenary session of the National Assembly on July 23 on the back of its overwhelming majority.

But if it pushes them through the parliament, it will face criticism that it seeks to extend its regime through media control disguised as media reform.

Press freedom is an important pillar of democracy. A unilateral push for legislation that would take the edge off criticism could knock it down.

The right way to tackle fake news lies in the media’s self-purification efforts and the strict application of existing laws.

By Korea Herald (koreaherald@heraldcorp.com)
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