[OUTLOOK]Online media and election rules

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[OUTLOOK]Online media and election rules

The minister of culture and tourism declared last Saturday that online news providers fall under the definition of news media. One online news provider, OhmyNews, ran into problems with the National Election Committee, which barred the airing of an interview of Millennium Democratic Party presidential candidates because, the committee said, Web sites are not registered as periodicals under Korean law.

This situation, in which the government decides whether a news provider is a part of the media, makes one wonder at the narrow limits of Korea's freedom of speech. Major newspaper and broadcasting companies are operating online news sites, and millions of readers obtain information from these sites. The problem with the minister's comment is that he went beyond his legitimate function of registration of periodicals into the question of what is and what is not a media outlet. The minister's remark was unnecessary and adds to the confusion surrounding the issue. If the minister is not aware of the distinction between the registration of periodicals and the legitimate role of online media, he is out of touch. If he is aware of the distinction, he has not performed his duties properly.

The constitution makes it clear that the registration of periodical publications is an act of administrative convenience ?a method for keeping track of conditions in the industry. So the periodicals law clearly says that government registration itself is not the crucial factor in defining what is and is not a news outlet. A minister's words should not decide the fate of the media. It would be a serious anomaly for the government to license the press, which exists to oversee the government.

It is a serious problem indeed if Koreans' rights to free speech are under the thumb of a minister of culture. The U.S. Constitution bans any law that infringes on freedom of speech, and Germany's constitution also acknowledges press rights in its constitution. Under the principles of the Korean Constitution, the press should address the people's right to know and contribute to spreading a variety of opinions. The government has no right to deliberately draw a line between the registered press and what it considers nonpress organs. President Kim Dae-jung held an interview with an online news provider a year ago, but the Culture and Tourism Ministry has belatedly acknowledged that the online media should be classified as press organs.

Even though the press provides information, it may infringe on individual rights at times. To protect the people from that possible danger, Germany enacted a law on the new digital media that obligates Internet news providers to follow the same principles of news reporting as older media, and list the online media outlet's name and address. Unfortunately, none of the Korean online news sites provide such information about their news desks. But the election commission is laying an embargo on the online media, citing that it has violated the publication act. The conduct of the election commission may be unconstitutional, as it runs counter to the principle of free speech, which bans prior restraint on news reporting. The election commission's conduct does not fit in the exceptional case that allows prior restraint when a news report clearly would cause a danger. The election commission has exercised unjust public power over the press; it overreacted in the Ohmynews case.

The National Assembly is the cause of the problem. Legislators devised an election law that imposes restrictions on election campaigns and media coverage of candidates to gain an edge over their rivals and maintain their vested interests. They are "naturally" covered by the media by virtue of their office, and thus have more opportunities to reach the voters. These restrictions may infringe the peoples' right to know at a time when voters need information most. The election act of Japan, which served as the model for its Korean counterpart, takes note of possible controversies surrounding the restrictions on election reporting. The Japanese act says such restrictions must not impede the freedom to report, edit and comment. The U.S. Supreme Court in the 1930s banned any presumption of constitutionality of laws that try to limit freedom of speech.

The OhmyNews incident is now in the hands of the court. The German high court ruled in 1966 that the state should acknowledge freedom of speech in all laws that affect the press. The Japanese Supreme Court ruled in 1979 that if the media provided unbiased reports on election campaigns then they have not violated the election act. Those two cases should provide a precedent for us; they both say that it is unjust to infringe on freedom of speech under the guise of bringing fairness to election campaigns.


The writer is a media professor at Hallym University.

by Kim Ok-jo

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