[EDITORIALS]A boon to our press freedom

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[EDITORIALS]A boon to our press freedom

The Supreme Court ruled recently that a media company need not pay a penalty for defamation of a civil servant, even if its criticism damaged his reputation, unless the report had a malicious intent. The ruling has set a standard that the media’s watchdog role is more important than the individual rights of a public servant when the two collide.
A former prosecutor filed the defamation suit against a broadcaster, saying his reputation was ruined because of an unfair report. The broadcasting company, however, said it had tried to verify if the prosecutor indicted a suspect twice for the same offense, but the prosecutor refused to answer. The Supreme Court ruled that the report defamed the prosecutor, but sent the case back to the lower court, rejecting the award of compensation. This can be interpreted as a statement that media freedom must be guaranteed as much as possible. “The media’s watchdog role must not be limited, unless the report has a malicious intent or is unreasonably offensive,” the court said. Similar precedents exist in other democratic countries, including the United States.
Since the Roh Moo-hyun administration began, more and more government agencies and public servants have been filing arbitration requests for media reports. Last year alone, government offices and public organizations referred 224 media reports to arbitration; that was almost a third of this year’s requests and is more than three times as many as the previous year’s filings.
The increase is connected to the Roh administration’s attempts to tame the press. Because of the government’s overreaction, the media’s watchdog role was in danger, and the Supreme Court ruling was timely.
Media freedom requires corresponding responsibility. For a report to be protected by law, a reporter must have enough grounds to believe that the report was accurate. That is only possible with thorough fact-checking. The Supreme Court overruled the lower court’s decision because it acknowledged the reporter’s efforts to verify the facts.
The media’s watchdog role is critical when it comes to the check of government power. Absolute power becomes corrupt without proper criticism. Lawsuits and arbitration requests to gag the press must be stopped.
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