중앙데일리

Court acquits ‘PD Diary’ staffers in U.S. beef case

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Jan 21,2010
Cho Neung-hee ,Min Dong-seok
Five Munwha Broadcasting Corporation production staffers were acquitted of charges that they defamed government officials and obstructed the business of U.S. beef importers by broadcasting a controversial “PD Diary” episode about mad cow disease in 2008.

Prosecutors immediately said they would appeal.

Wrapping up a one-year investigation, prosecutors concluded in June last year that MBC staff members - four producers and a scriptwriter - deliberately created a biased report on the safety of U.S. beef and the risk of mad cow disease and thus defamed then-Agriculture Minister Chung Woon-chun and Min Dong-seok, former deputy minister and chief negotiator on the U.S. beef import deal.

In acquitting the accused, Seoul Central District Court Judge Mun Sung-gwan, who presided over the single-panel trial, said that their reports cannot be considered false.

“At the time, there were enough reasons to question the risk of mad cow disease and U.S. beef and have doubts about the government’s negotiations with the United States to lift the import ban,” Mun said. “The reports took into account the opinions of experts and issued criticism based on those. Therefore, it is hard to say that the reports had defamed Chun and others.”

The court also acquitted the five of obstructing the business of U.S. beef imports, again saying the reports were not false.

The ruling runs counter to two earlier findings by the Seoul Southern District Court and Seoul High Court. In June 2008, the Korea Communications Standards Commission ordered MBC to apologize to viewers for violating fairness and objectivity in the two controversial episodes.

Later, the Seoul Southern District Court and the Seoul High Court ruled that MBC must run corrections concerning the episodes.

“It is a ruling that granted the right to use spin in journalism,” Noh Young-bo, a lawyer in the law firm of Bae, Kim & Lee LLC, said of yesterday’s acquittal. “It leaves a bad precedent for all future cases about distorted and falsified reports.”

“We will immediately file an appeal and correct this matter,” said Shin Gyeong-sik, a senior prosecutor who had participated in the investigation. “The evidence submitted to the court clearly showed that the production staffers intentionally distorted facts. The accused and witnesses had also admitted to some of the distortion during the trial. And yet the court said the reports were true, and that is not acceptable.”

Chung, the former agriculture minister who had asked the prosecution to begin the defamation case, also condemned the acquittal.


“Isn’t the ruing based on the judge’s personal standards, rather than the law?” Chung said. “If rulings differ between judges, how can people trust the judiciary, the last stronghold of democracy?”

But Cho Neung-hee, the chief producer of the two mad cow disease episodes, welcomed the ruling.

“It is the duty of the press to criticize and monitor those with power,” he said. “I don’t think the acquittal means the end of our pain. As long as the administration continues, our agony will continue, but we will endure it.”

MBC did not officially issue a position on the acquittal.

The Lee administration reacted cautiously. “Our silence should speak for our position,” said Park Sun-kyoo, Blue House spokesman.

Shortly after Seoul and Washington struck a deal to open the Korean market to a wide range of U.S. beef on April 18, 2008, PD Diary aired an episode titled “Emergency Report! U.S. beef, is it really safe from mad cow disease?” and ran a sequel two weeks later.

The reports prompted massive nationwide public demonstrations, which later turned into an anti-Lee administration campaign. At the same time, criticism grew that MBC workers distorted facts, deliberately mistranslated and exaggerated threats of mad cow disease in relation to U.S. beef.

The nation was split over yesterday’s acquittal. While the progressives welcomed the outcome, conservatives expressed disappointment.

“Even if criticism toward the government’s policy decisions has some factual errors, it should be allowed when the errors are not intentional,” said Ahn Jin-geol of People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy. “The Lee administration tries to punish those critical of the government at all cost, and the ruling shows that such an attempt won’t work.”

“Press freedom was taken to the court in a criminal proceeding, and that is an act of infringement upon the media’s rights,” said Goh Gyeo-hyeon of the Citizens’ Coalition for Economic Justice. “The government and the prosecution must learn a lesson.”

But Kim Jin-su, spokesman of the New Right Union, disagreed.

“MBC had internally admitted that the reports were distorted and exaggerated, and the entire nation suffered because of it,” Kim said. “But the court made a ruling that will confuse people’s understanding of the law.”


By Ser Myo-ja [myoja@joongang.co.kr]



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