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[Editorial] Do not shackle media

DP seeks to treble damages on news media, raising concerns over freedom of speech

The ruling Democratic Party of Korea said last Tuesday that it would include major news organizations and portal sites such as Naver and Google in the media subject to its bill to award punitive damages to a prevailing plaintiff in a libel suit.

Five days earlier, the party had decided to amend the information and communications act to allow the court to impose up to treble damages on YouTube channels and other one-person media as punishment for defamation. It excluded established news organizations from punitive damages.

But as die-hard supporters of President Moon Jae-in protested the exclusion of mainstream media and portals, the party shifted its position. It decided to expand punitive damages to them.

The party plans to pass six media-related bills, including the punitive damages amendment, during an extraordinary session of the National Assembly next month.

Some news channels using YouTube and other social network services disseminate false information and raise conspiracy theories, causing social confusion and conflicts. A crackdown is needed. But subjecting mainstream news organizations to punitive damages may repress news coverage and criticism of certain issues. Academic circles and civic groups, including media unions which used to be sympathetic to the Moon administration, expressed concerns that the amendment bill will likely erode the media role of watching those in power.

There are also concerns that punitive damages may induce strategically frequent litigation to weaken criticisms by the media. If politicians or government officials file punitive damages suit against media that are unpalatable to them, it could have a chilling effect not only on relevant media but also on other news organizations.

Countermeasures to malicious reports such as damage relief and sanctions are already in place. Current criminal law prescribes the punishment for libel and slander. Tripling the amount of the actual or compensatory damages even when civil law currently awards damages raises issues of controversial double punishment. The Press Arbitration Commission and the Korea Communication Standards Commission are available as well. Plaintiffs can demand relevant media publish corrections or report counterarguments.

Besides, fake news has often stemmed from figures supportive of the ruling party and President Moon. Rhyu Si-min, a well-known polemicist, used sophistry to defend former Justice Minister Cho Kuk, a close aide to Moon. In addition, Rhyu falsely claimed that the prosecution had looked into the bank accounts of a foundation that he chairs. Rep. Yoon Joon-byeong of the DP spread fake news that government files detected during an inspection, which detail a plan to build a nuclear power plant in North Korea, had been compiled in the days of former President Park Geun-hye. It is questionable if punitive damages will be applied fairly. They will likely be abused in favor of those in power.

Rep. Noh Woong-rae, who leads a media reform task force of the party, says that the Democratic Party will restrict the awarding of punitive damages and that normal media would have nothing to worry about. But the concept of fake news is ambiguous. The party did not specify a definition for fake news. Arbitrary interpretation is highly likely.

Nevertheless, the party subjected mainstream media to punitive damages as Moon supporters demanded. It would not be hard to guess what the Moon fans want. They want to gag media to prevent them from criticizing the president. There is a high possibility of punitive damages being abused as a means to prevent criticisms of the current administration and the ruling party. They tamed the prosecution and the judiciary considerably. Now they are targeting the press.

Freedom of speech, guaranteed by the constitution, is one of the core democratic values. People have the right to know. Any move that may repress freedom of speech and the right to know is a threat to democracy. The ruling party must stop attempting to take control over the media with punitive damages under the specious pretext of reform.