[VIEWPOINT]With Power Comes More AccountabilityThe number of lawsuits filed against false or defamatory reports in the media has jumped over recent years. According to the Press Arbitration Commission, it received 602 requests for mediation in 1998, up from 55 cases in 1988 － more than a 10-fold jump in as many years. The number of court suits claiming compensation and correction of reports and applications to the courts for injunctions against the press have steadily increased.
The kinds of people filing suits against the press for libel have diversified. Leaders of society, such as politicians, businessmen, university professors and people in religious vocations, as well as ordinary people, are taking action against the media and journalists. There have been even cases where government institutions or officials who exercise significant state power, such as prosecutors, have filed suits against the press for libel, and some cases where journalists have sued other journalists. These have surprised the public.
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides, "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." But this right to information is not absolute. It can be curbed in cases where national security, an individual's reputation and privacy or business secrets need to be protected. Under the authoritarian governments in Korea in the past, it was not the freedom of the press but its social responsibility that was an issue under the guise of securing national security. But since the Kim Young-sam administration, the press's accountability to individuals regarding their personal rights, such as protecting their honor, has become the issue most fiercely debated.
The public tends to accept press reports at face value, taking media reports as the gospel truth and comments by the press as always just. The influence of the press has now reached its height in Korea, so much so that it is commonly said to be the fourth power, following the administrative, legislative and judicial powers. A professor of law has even said that now the three main powers in Korean society are the political sector, the business sector and the press. Such comments indicate that the press has grown into a mighty force indeed since democratic governments came to power.
The judiciary is dealing with the realities of this power. Korean courts have been inclined to give priority to the protection of the honor of individuals rather than defense of freedom of the press. According to precedents set by the Supreme Court, a report does not violate laws if it aims solely to serve the interests of the public, if proof backs up its assertions and if there is good reason to believe it is true. In the case of Sullivan v. The New York Times Co., the United States Supreme Court ruled that a report defamatory of an official reputation is insufficient to warrant an award of damages for false statements unless the plaintiff, a public figure, can prove actual malice. But the Korean Supreme Court forced the press to account for an erroneous statement, without proof of actual malice, in a similar case.
The amount of compensation awarded in cases of defamation has also increased. In the early 1990s, most compensatory awards were below 10 million won ($7,700). But now sums of compensation regularly top tens of millions of won and it is no longer rare to see awards of hundreds of millions of won. It is the media's fate that it must strike a balance between the duty to report and to account for its reports. According to the U.S. Society of Professional Journalists' code of ethics, journalists should "admit mistakes and correct them promptly." The rule is needed not only to protect people's honor and privacy but also to protect the press itself from outside pressures, allowing it to advance to the level of the press in more developed nations.
The writer is a lawyer at Kim & Chang Law Firm.
by Han Sang-ho