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[Editorial] Choking the press

Ministry, experts concerned about media bill; DP determined to enact it

The Culture, Sports and Tourism Ministry and the National Assembly Research Service expressed concerns over a media arbitration bill pushed by the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, according to related parliamentary stenographic records disclosed belatedly by an opposition party lawmaker.

In a related closed-door subcommittee meeting on July 27, First Vice Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism Oh Yeong-woo said that there are no precedents for a clause of the bill that awards punitive compensation of up to five times as much as the assessed amount of damage from false and manipulated information.

Referring to another clause that sets the lower limit of damage compensation, he said that there were no legislative precedents and that it was excessive.

The National Assembly Research Service said that it found no legislative cases in major foreign countries on punitive damages against the media.

Expert advisers of the National Assembly’s Culture, Sports and Tourism Committee said in a review report on the bill that punitive damages in a country where defamation can be criminally punished constitutes double jeopardy.

Regarding an article that gives media companies the burden of proof that their reports are unintentional, Kim Seung-won, a DP lawmaker who was a judge, said that in light of legal principles on damage compensation, the burden of proof should be on the party who requests compensation.

Not only the related ministry but also parliamentary experts and even a ruling party lawmaker voiced concerns, but the DP effectively ignored them and pushed the bill unilaterally through the subcommittee.

The main opposition People Power Party had demanded an open subcommittee meeting, but the DP refused. The ruling party made it clear that it will not fail to pass the bill through the plenary session on Aug. 25.

Its push for enactment of the bill raises concerns that it will use the law as a pretext to blockade press criticisms of the current administration, particularly ahead of the presidential election next March.

A leading contender of the ruling party’s race to elect its presidential candidate has taken a step further from supporting the press bill.

Gyeonggi Provincial Gov. Lee Jae-myung said Monday that the fivefold compensation was weak and that media companies must be compelled to go bust if they intentionally and malignantly report false news.

If a candidate with such a radical view of the press takes power and wields it against the press, freedom of speech and democracy will likely be daunted.

Not only experts but also press groups expressed concerns about the bill’s violation of freedom of speech.

The Korea News Editors’ Association, the Korean Association of Newspapers, the Journalists Association of Korea, the Korea Woman Journalists Association and the Korea Internet Newspaper Association defined the bill as an anti-democratic bad law in a joint statement.

The Kwanhun Club, a gathering of senior journalists, said in a statement that the DP’s media arbitration bill will threaten people’s right to know and discourage the press’ checks on power.

Even the Citizens’ Coalition for Democratic Media, a civic group regarded as supportive of the current regime, said the bill lacks a mechanism for media to be able to respond to possible abuse by those in power.

In the existing legal system, false news is punishable, and if media organizations lose fairness in reporting, they will lose competitiveness in the news market and eventually go out of business through a market mechanism.

If the bill is enacted, the ruling party and its supporters will be encouraged to try to block press reports critical of them or allegations involving them by seeking large amounts of compensation.

With a mud fight raging among potential candidates ahead of the presidential election, the role of the press in exploring truth is becoming more important than ever. But if the bill takes effect, freedom of speech will likely be choked by those in power. If they escape from press surveillance, the uncomfortable truth will be covered and they will try to monopolize power.

By Korea Herald (koreaherald@heraldcorp.com)
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