[OUTLOOK]The fugitive 'known only as Cho'

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[OUTLOOK]The fugitive 'known only as Cho'

Before the "friendly" soccer match between the two Koreas, we published an interesting interview with a man whom we identified as follows: "Choi Myeong-dong (not his real name), who was coach of the North Korean soccer team until he defected to the South in 2000."

Why the pseudonym? We sometimes shield the identity of defectors to protect them or their families from reprisals by North Korea. But in this case, do we really suppose that the North Koreans don't know who their soccer coach was, or don't know that he defected?

Korean newspapers' policies on identifying the people they report about puzzle many Westerners. But since much of our news, including the interview with the soccer coach, is translated from the Korean JoongAng Ilbo, its policy becomes our policy, willy-nilly.

Almost every day we carry an item whose protagonist is "a man identified only as Lee," or even as "P." I'm told it's to protect people's privacy.

Not long ago there was a story about a man of modest station in life who had given a substantial sum of money to charity. To protect his privacy, we couldn't name him. As no charity was specified, either, we decided it wasn't really a news story and didn't print it. It's nice if such things happen, but there was no way to check whether the story was true or made up.

On another occasion, we reported that police had mounted a nationwide manhunt for a suspected criminal "identified only as Cho." Gosh, that's scary. I know several people named Cho. Could one of them be the criminal? I'd better ring up the police and report all my Chos.

Come to think of it, why are we protecting the privacy of a wanted fugitive?

During the parliamentary by-elections in August we ran a story about the activities of "Candidate A," contrasting them to the doings of "Candidate B." Their party affiliations were not stated, but the election district was; so people in the know could figure it out. As in the case of the North Korean soccer coach, only our readers were left in the dark.

And anyway, why are we protecting the privacy of candidates for public office?

Fear of libel suits, says Lee Moo-young, a JoongAng Ilbo reporter who formerly worked in the English Edition newsroom.

That surprises me, because it often seems to me that the only time we do use real names is when we libel them royally. I can't tell you how many times I've stuck "prosecutors said" or "allegedly" into bald statements such as "Soandso illegally took a 50 million won bribe from Suchandsuch."

If Korean newspapers are afraid of libel suits, let them report more carefully, distinguishing between allegation and fact. But let's not withhold the essential fact of the story, the name of the person involved.

But confirmed facts can be libelous too, Mr. Lee informs me. It says so in Clause 1, Article 307 of the Korean Criminal Code. The penalty is up to two years in prison and a 5 million won ($4,100) fine.

I guess it makes a sort of sense. If you say Jones takes candy from children, it's even more injurious to his reputation if you can show that it's true.

Korean courts carry the concept of defamation to quite startling lengths. In one case the descendants of long-dead scholars won a judgment against a television network for its unflattering portrayal of the scholars in a historical drama.

"There is even a clause in the criminal code that makes it a crime to publicize the fact that a certain individual is accused of having committed a crime." Mr. Lee says -- hence we say "Mr. Cho" is accused. The fact that there are a zillion Mr. Chos in Korea is precisely the point. No individual has been defamed in a group that large.

Korean courts allow the naming of "public people" ?hence at every stage of the investigation we unhesitatingly named the president's sons and other major figures in this year's series of scandals (I mean "alleged" scandals). Even here, though, newspapers have to be careful. People subsequently acquitted of criminal charges have successfully sued newspapers that reported that they had been accused.

Western countries take a different view. If the police have mounted a nationwide manhunt for Mr. Cho, that is a fact, not a slur. And the filing of a criminal charge is a matter of public record. It is a fact, not a libel, to say that Joe Doaks has been charged with armed robbery; but the presumption of innocence bars us from suggesting that he is guilty until a trial settles the issue of guilt.

Western journalism, in fact, regards naming accused people as a basic protection of their rights. Secret arrests with secret trials and secret evidence were common a few hundred years ago. Now the government has to say publicly what it is doing at every step of the process -- that is, it had to account for itself until this year, when opportunists in the United States began trying to abrogate some of those rights in the name of fighting terrorism. American newspapers have begun to fight against judicial secrecy.

Korea's court system, too, has been abused in the not-so-distant past. Publicizing the names of criminal suspects and the charges against them is a good way of disciplining courts and prosecutors. Korean newspapers should fight for these reforms.


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The writer is editor of the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition.


by Hal Piper

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