A very dangerous idea
The author is a professor at Korea University Law School.
Information has become vitally important in the modern age. Individuals, enterprises and governments vie to get their hands on useful information faster than their competitors. Some are seeking profit through illicit leaks — or distortion — of information. Fake news has become rampant in Korea.
To a responsible press, credibility of a report is as valuable as the speed and competitiveness of the news. That is why it is essential for media outlets to check their facts.
The government and the ruling party have declared war on fake news instead of leaving fact-checking to individual media organizations. Their efforts may underscore the danger of disinformation and hoaxes, but political involvement in the press could seriously raise challenges to the freedom of that press.
Ruling Democratic Party (DP) floor-leader Hong Young-pyo declared that the allegations about nepotistic hiring at the Seoul Metro were false. The ruling party branded any accusations against the government by opposition parties as lies and fabrications during the National Assembly’s recent audit of the government. It is true that phony news has become prevalent, but declaring legitimate criticism as fake cannot be justified.
To better decipher what is true, it is important to distinguish fact from opinion in news publications or broadcasts. It is important to deliver facts as is.
But at the same time, diversity of opinion should be appreciated in a democratic society. Those spreading misinformation or distorting facts should be held accountable, but subjective input and analysis should be allowed.
For instance, if a media outlet misreports a comment by the president or a party, that cannot be excused. But individual interpretations of that comment can vary. Misrepresentations of a fact can be described as fake news. However, reporting on a suspicion raised by a political party against its rival without checking the fact cannot entirely fall under the category of fake news.
Some of the so-called facts may not be real. Some news organizations can report on carefully chosen elements of allegations to intentionally mislead their audience, or they can associate irrelevant past affairs to arrive at deceptive conclusions. Withholding key information also can mold the facts to one’s liking. These questionable reporting practices are issues for domestic and foreign news media. But it should not be up to the government or the ruling party to determine what news is real and what should not be reported.
The public has become more vigilant about bogus news. Traditional and online media also have become extra careful in fact-checking. The government, therefore, should not attempt to control or censor the press on the pretext of reining in the spread of fake news. It should be up to individuals to digest what’s available in the immense sea of news and information. If the government censors news available via the internet and the press, it is like killing the freedom of the press in the country.
The freedom of the press refers to the freedom to express differing opinions and the freedom to criticize. The level of liberty in criticizing sitting power indicates how much freedom the country enjoys in speech. If the government and the ruling party claim offending reports are fake news, freedom of the press is dead. The so-called war with fake news could evolve to a war with the press.
Few would disagree with a clampdown on sham news and the spread of disinformation. But just because the goal is just, doesn’t mean the means can be completely justified. The means and the procedures to regulate bogus news should be designed so as not to undermine the freedom of the press. Any type of censorship to weed out bogus news would be like burning down the house to smoke out a rat.
If press freedom is limited, democracy could be next.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilob, Oct. 31, Page 29