Top court acquits MBC staffers on mad cow report

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Top court acquits MBC staffers on mad cow report

Ending a three year legal battle over press freedoms, the Supreme Court yesterday upheld the acquittals of five staffers of the Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation over charges that their 2008 “PD Diary” episode about the risk of mad cow disease had defamed government officials who reopened the domestic market to U.S. beef.

The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the PD Diary report contained some false information, but concluded that the producers couldn’t be held accountable because their intention was to serve the public interest by reporting on a government policy that affected the health of the people.

“The appeals court ruled that the contents of the report had no direct relationship with the reputations of the alleged defamation victims who were public servants,” the Supreme Court said yesterday. “It also ruled that the report could not be seen as a malicious slander, thus the accused could not be held accountable for defamation. The ruling is just.”

Shortly after President Lee Myung-bak took office in 2008, Seoul agreed to reopen the Korean market to American beef, lifting a ban imposed since the first U.S. case of mad cow disease was reported in 2003.

The deal was announced on April 18, 2008, and MBC’s PD Diary aired an episode on the safety of U.S. beef on April 29, 2008. Afterwards, demonstrations took place in the streets of Seoul and other cities, which eventually evolved into months of massive anti-Lee, anti-U.S. protests with violent clashes between police and protesters.

Lee eventually issued two apologies and Seoul renegotiated the deal to tighten import regulations.

Four producers and a script writer of MBC’s PD Diary team were indicted in June 2009 on charges of defaming Chung Woon-chun, then the minister for food, agriculture, forestry and fisheries, and Min Dong-seok, the key negotiator of the U.S.-beef import deal.

At the time, the prosecutors argued that the PD Diary staffers intentionally distorted facts and exaggerated the risk of mad cow disease in American beef and obstructed the U.S. beef importers’ business by airing the program.

After the initial trial in January 2010, the five staffers were acquitted. The ruling said their report could be considered false.

In an appeals trial by the Seoul Central District Court, the five accused were once again acquitted, although the court acknowledged the prosecutors’ arguments that some parts of the episode exaggerated and distorted the threat of mad cow disease in U.S. beef.

The appeals court, however, dismissed the prosecutors’ argument that MBC staffers intentionally defamed Chung and Min.

The prosecution appealed the case again, and the Supreme Court upheld the acquittals yesterday, ending the legal battle between the broadcaster and the state after three years and three months.

In a case related to the defamation suit, the Supreme Court also reversed a Seoul High Court ruling that ordered PD Diary to air corrections in a verdict that largely reduced the responsibility of the broadcaster to air corrections.

After reviewing seven controversial parts of the report, the highest court said the PD Diary was responsible for correcting parts that it ruled as false information, such as the assertion that Koreans have a 94 percent probability of developing the human form of mad cow disease.

The highest court, however, struck down two correction orders by the Seoul High Court. PD Diary reported that there was no measure for the Korean government to take if mad cow disease occurred in the United States and that the Lee administration concealed the risk of the American beef during its negotiations to reopen the market.

The Supreme Court said those assertions were the programs opinions, not factual errors.

In addition to the defamation suit, the Agriculture Ministry filed a case to the Press Arbitration Commission in May 2008 to demand that MBC air corrections for its report and the ministry’s refutation of it.

The commission sided with the ministry and ordered corrections, but the PD Diary production team refused and brought the case to the Seoul Southern District Court later that month.


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

한글 관련 기사 [중앙일보]
PD수첩 광우병 정정보도 범위 축소 … 3대 핵심쟁점 “허위” 유지
대법, 명예훼손 무죄 원심 확정
2008년 촛불집회로 이어졌던 MBC PD수첩의 ‘미국산 쇠고기 광우병’ 보도에 대한 사법부의 최종 판단이 나왔다. 농림수산식품부가 정정보도를 청구하고 정운천 전 농림수산식품부 장관 등 2명이 명예훼손 혐의로 PD수첩 제작진을 검찰에 수사 의뢰한 지 3년3개월 만이다.

 대법원 전원합의체(주심 양창수 대법관)는 2일 농식품부가 MBC를 상대로 낸 정정·반론보도 청구소송 상고심에서 원심을 깨고 사건을 서울고법으로 돌려보냈다. 재판부는 ▶주저앉은 소를 광우병 걸린 소인 것처럼 보도하고 ▶미국인 아레사 빈슨이 인간 광우병으로 숨졌을 가능성을 지적한 것 ▶광우병 걸린 쇠고기를 먹은 한국인 발병확률을 94%이라고 보도하는 등 핵심 3개 항목에 대해서는 “허위 사실에 해당한다”는 원심 판결을 유지했다.

 그러나 ▶미국에서 광우병이 발생해도 한국 정부가 할 수 있는 조치가 없고 ▶정부가 미국산 쇠고기의 위험성을 몰랐거나 은폐·축소한 채 협상했다는 등 2개 쟁점에 대한 정정보도 청구를 받아들인 원심 판결과 다른 판단을 했다.

재판부는 “정정·반론보도 청구는 ‘사실적 주장에 대한 보도’를 대상으로 해야 하는데 해당 보도는 평가 및 의견 표명에 관한 것으로 그 대상이 될 수 없다”고 말했다. 앞서 2심 재판부는 이들 2개 항목 역시 사실적 주장에 대한 보도로 그 내용이 허위여서 정정보도의 대상이 된다고 판결했었다.


 대법원 2부(주심 이상훈 대법관)도 이날 MBC ‘PD수첩’이 허위·왜곡 보도를 통해 정운천 전 장관과 민동석 전 농업통상정책관의 명예를 훼손한 혐의 등으로 기소된 조능희 PD 등 제작진 5명에게 무죄를 선고한 원심을 확정했다. 재판부는 “보도내용 중 일부가 허위사실에 해당하지만, 공공성 있는 사안을 대상으로 한 데다 보도내용이 공직자인 피해자의 명예와 직접적 연관이 없다”며 “악의적인 공격으로 볼 수 없다고 판단한 원심은 정당하다”고 밝혔다. 대법원 2부 역시 보도 내용 중 ▶주저앉은 소 ▶아레사 빈슨 사인(死因) ▶한국인 광우병 발병확률 등은 최종적으로 허위사실로 확정했다. 1심 재판부는 “프로그램 내용을 허위사실로 보기 어렵다”며 제작진 전원에게 무죄를 선고했고, 2심 재판부는 무죄 판결을 유지하면서도 “프로그램 내용 일부에 허위사실이 있다”고 판단했었다.

 대법원 판결에 따라 ‘PD수첩’ 광우병 보도 논란은 일단락됐지만 후유증이 작지 않을 전망이다. 당시 프로그램 방영 이후 2개월 가까이 대규모 촛불집회가 계속됐고 수사와 재판을 거치며 사회적 갈등이 커졌다는 지적을 받았다.  

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