In 2007, the final year of the Roh Moo-hyun presidency, major government offices literally locked down press rooms in their precincts under an order from the Blue House. The president made the decision out of belief that media representatives were just there to harass officials on duty.
Print and broadcast journalists, as well as some internet reporters who were not many at that time, had to rent small spaces near government offices to continue to do their job of reporting what was going on inside by the men and women paid with tax money. Official press releases and infrequent press briefings were the only means of access to “news” as phone calls to officials were not often responded to.
Government authorities might have expected a surge of “good news” and a drawdown of “bad news” as an effect of the virtual media blackout. Newspapers, however, carried an increased volume of news stories on the administration, more in negative tones mostly attributed to unnamed but reliable sources. Then, there came a change of power from the left to the right and the new Lee Myung-bak administration reopened press rooms at government ministries as one of its first actions.
After a decade and a half, the leftist government and its party are making another move to interfere with media activities, this time through a tough legislation unseen in a democracy. They seek to control the business of press workers and their employers with threats of huge punitive damage instead of the surgical approach of closing down press rooms. It takes the form of a revision bill to the Law on Press Arbitration and Reparation of Damage, which quickly earned the nickname of “Press Gag Law.”
They argue that it is aimed at preventing “fake news” currently on the rise. More than a dozen radical ruling party lawmakers had individually proposed similar legislation and the different texts were unified into a single bill by a task force team. When the arbitrary contents of the bill were made public in July, journalist organizations of different professional ideals raised a single voice of objection, echoed by international press bodies.
In the fake news bill, particularly poisonous clauses were those providing punitive damage of up to five times the recognized value of the loss to the victim caused by untruthful articles, using the ambiguous terms of “malicious intent” and “gross negligence” in defining fake news, requiring the same space and time for corrections, and allowing individuals the right to interdict (erase) stories apparently violating their privacy and prestige.
With its power of absolute majority in the Assembly, the ruling Democratic Party of Korea passed the bill through relevant committees but at the last moment agreed with the PPP to postpone submitting the bill to the plenary session until late September. In the meantime, the International Press Institute, the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, the International Federation of Journalists and the Reporters without Borders issued statements demanding withdrawal of the “anti-disinformation amendment.”
A UN special rapporteur delivered an open letter to the Korean government, expressing her concerns over the controversial bill here which could “violate international human rights law and infringe on freedom of expression.” Irene Khan of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said if the amendments are adopted at the National Assembly without further changes, they could severely restrict the media’s rights to freedom of information and expression.
Promoters of the fake news bill point to the abundance of false information in the present day South Korea, especially slanderous and defamatory stories about political figures. True, there are innumerable YouTube streaming and podcasts and countless postings on the internet every day and every hour delivering items that contain some truth, half-truths and sheer fabrication to this fully wired Korean society.
But everyone knows that the direct cause for the ruling group to make such hard efforts with the bill is the “Cho Kuk affair” which has dogged the ruling group shortly after the inception of the Moon Jae-in administration. Cho, a former Seoul National University professor, committed himself to the task of reforming the nation’s prosecution service first as the senior presidential secretary for civil affairs and later as the justice minister. His mission foundered as mainstream media exposed improprieties involving Cho and his family.
It is understandable that President Moon, who served as the chief of staff for the late president Roh Moo-hyun, had developed ill sentiments against the strong-armed prosecution and the nation’s media outlets in general. He had witnessed the former probing bribery scandals surrounding Roh’s wife and children and the latter indiscriminately conveying prosecutors’ allegations to the public from the final days of the Roh presidency to his suicide in May 2009.
After the conservative Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations, governing power rolled back to the political lineage of Roh led by his former chief secretary. Moon’s election was a product of the media’s energetic exposure of the Choi Sun-sil scandal, which had grown out of Park’s self-isolation and ineptitude, but the new power holders wishfully assumed their mandate as being given for their moral integrity and public service competence with Cho Kuk as the symbolic figure. The Chosun, JoongAng and Dong-A dailies portrayed wholly different realities.
The media environment in South Korea has changed a lot over the past decade with more and more people relying on information conveyed through online portals and mobile handsets. The role of major dailies has declined but they still enjoy high credibility compared to the various kinds of new media. The ruling power must want to prevent traditional media from finding more Cho Kuks in Korean politics approaching the presidential election.
If the government and its party truly want to get rid of fake news and remove their makers from the information market, they have better things to do than trying to force legitimate media workers into self-censorship in fear of exorbitant “punitive damage.” If they browse through the many political YouTube videos for just an hour, they would know what should be done to protect the public from false information. But they left YouTube and private online outlets out of the fake news bill.
We now ponder if those who move about to quash fake news are actually more afraid of truth from being disseminated by good and just media outlets.Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. – Ed.
By Korea Herald (firstname.lastname@example.org