South Korea’s ruling Democratic Party is pushing ahead with controversial amendments to a law that critics charge are designed to muzzle the media and will give the government wide-ranging powers to restrict freedom of the press.
Domestic media outlets have joined with international press organizations and legal experts to condemn the revisions.
Opposition parties have vowed to do everything in their power to block the passage of the bill when it comes before the South Korean national assembly in the early part of next week.
There are fears, however, that it will prove difficult to halt changes to the so-called Press Arbitration Act because the government of President Moon Jae-in has such a commanding majority in the chamber.
Government claims increase in ‘fake news’
The government says it has to revise the law due to the sharp increase in “fake news” put out by media outlets that it claims are deceiving the general public.
Few disagree that there is a need to halt the spread of incorrect reporting that is intentionally inaccurate and damaging, but critics highlight problemselsewhere in the legislation.
Courts will be able to impose punitive compensation of five times the present levels for stories that are deemed to be deliberately false or “grossly negligent” in their reporting.
Most worryingly, the criteria for determining the intent of the media outlet is vague, meaning that the government could levy the charge of “fake news” against any story that it dislikes. This would effectively pressure media to withdraw reports that are critical of the government’s policies and actions.
Activists warn of ‘serious press restrictions’
Domestic media organizations, including the Korean Association of Newspapers and the left-wing National Union of Media Workers, have protested the legal revisions.
They have been joined by international institutions, such as the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, and the International Press Institute.
In a statement issued by the Seoul Foreign Correspondents’ Club, the board expressed “deep concerns” over legal changes that “could seriously restrict the freedom of the press.”
“The move to revise the Press Arbitration Act puts at risk the international image and free press environment that South Korea has built up over a long period of time, as it has demonstrated the fact that those in power could affect the newsgathering environment, for both domestic and foreign media,” it added.
Media ‘shocked’ by government’s hard hand
One Korean journalist says the industry has been “shocked” by the proposed law, particularly as it is being imposed by a left-wing government that claims to be liberal in its political outlook.
“We are aware that fake news is a problem in the industry, but we are not happy that the government will have the power to decide what is fake,” said the veteran reporter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not have the permission of his media organization to comment on the issue.
“A lot of people have been shocked at the attitude of the government because most of the politicians in the ruling party were leading activists in the democracy movement under the military governments of the past,” the journalist told DW.
“They have always said they were for democracy, free speech, human rights, press freedoms and so on. But they are now passing a law that goes completely against that,” he added.
June Park, a political economist at George Washington University, said imposing limits on the media was in the past a hallmark of authoritarian governments.
“The government, the leadership of the ruling party and the presidential Blue House all seem to believe that the right-wing press has been unfair in its coverage of some of the scandals that have hit the government in the last couple of years,” she told DW.
Crackdown follows downfall of top minister
Arguably, Park added, the government’s focus on media stems from the appointment of Cho Kuk as the new justice minister in September 2019.
The appointment was marred by allegations that Cho and his wife had engaged in illicit business activities and conspired to falsify the details of their daughter’s educational qualifications to get her into a medical university.
Within five weeks of his appointment, Cho was gone, forced to resign after further media reports of tax irregularities and numerous accusations of plagiarism during his education.
In late 2019, his wife, Chung Kyung-sim, was charged with forgery in connection with her daughter’s university application. The following year, she was additionally charged with embezzlement and in December 2020, found guilty and sentenced to four years in prison, as well as a fine of 500 million won ($427,000, €363,000).
Media coverage of the case — and several others, including sexual harassment and insider trading charges against members of the Democratic Party — whipped up public anger, with the ruling party blaming the press for its poor showing in regional elections last year.
A nationwide election is slated for March 2022 and the government apparently hopes to have the new rules in place before campaigning begins.
“There is undoubtedly a lot of misinformation going around, particularly on social media, and I think most people agree that something needs to be done,” said Park. “But this is not a democratic measure; it will damage freedom of speech and I think it’s a very worrying development.”