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[Editorial] The right not to know

Police and media must take action to stop releasing, reporting irrelevant personal details of suspects

By Korea Herald

Published : Jan. 3, 2024 - 05:31

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The tragic death of actor Lee Sun-kyun last week has ignited criticism against the police for not complying with its own press guidelines, and the media for reckless coverage of private details that most people do not want to, or need to, know.

Since October, Lee stood in front of hundreds of flashing cameras on three different occasions and apologized to the public for “causing concern” before he entered the police building for questioning on his alleged use of prohibited substances.

Prior to the third police interrogation on Dec. 23, Lee had asked the police through his lawyer not to let the press know about it, but the police declined the request.

An official at the Incheon Metropolitan Police Agency said that “some broadcast reporters” insisted it should be open to the press because if it is done secretly, he could be photographed or filmed “like he is sneaking in,” which, they said, would make him look worse.

Police rules, however, prohibit chiefs of police stations from releasing information on when individuals under investigation will show up for questioning, or allowing the press to photograph or film them during the investigation.

Whatever some reporters may insist, the police should abide by its own rules. Members of the press have no way of finding out when a suspect will be summoned unless someone in law enforcement tells them.

Police rules on human rights protection in investigations restrict late night or marathon interrogations. Yet the police grilled Lee for 19 hours overnight on Dec. 23. According to Lee’s lawyer, the actor was told to choose between being openly summoned again and being interrogated overnight.

Actor Yoo Ah-in, who is under investigation for alleged use of illicit drugs, said he had also asked the police ahead of his second summoning in May to let him enter police premises through alternative routes to avoid the press, but his request was denied.

Article 126 of the Criminal Act, which bans investigative authorities from releasing facts regarding a suspected crime, has practically become a dead letter.

The press, represented by groups such as the Journalists Association of Korea and the Korean Association of Newspapers, should also come up with binding guidelines to refrain from reporting on irrelevant private details of suspects.

Ever since a provincial newspaper reported on Oct. 19 that police were looking into drug allegations against “top star L,” just a day after the police took in a hostess of a bar in Seoul’s Gangnam-gu who had been blackmailing Lee, media outlets and YouTube channels scrambled to disgorge speculations and private information that only serve to indulge some people’s morbid curiosity.

On Nov. 24, the nation’s largest public broadcaster, KBS, released a transcript of Lee’s telephone conversation with the hostess, which included content that had nothing to do with the drug allegations.

Other than the woman’s claims, there was no evidence that Lee had knowingly used illegal drugs. In November, he tested negative in both a reagent test conducted during police interrogation and a comprehensive lab-based drug analysis of his hair samples by the National Forensic Service.

How many deaths will it take for the Korean media including YouTubers to stop crossing the line?

On the day the probe into Lee was made public, allegations that a presidential protocol secretary's 9-year-old daughter had severely assaulted a younger schoolmate to the extent that she required nine weeks of medical treatment were also reported. The latter news, however, did not get much media traction, as the presidential office immediately fired the secretary, Kim Seung-hee, while news on Lee dominated the media.

The media’s obsessive coverage of celebrities' dark sides is one of the vices that further sicken people's minds in a country that has the world's highest suicide rate, and efforts must be made to achieve some level of self-control.