New rules for summons will exclude mediaProsecutors nationwide were ordered to stop informing the media before high-profile figures were brought in for questioning or arrest.
Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl gave the order Friday, according to the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office (SPO), effective immediately.
“Even before we finalize a specific plan to improve public affairs practices regarding investigations, we must completely stop publicly summoning suspects and witnesses,” Yoon was quoted as saying. “The prosecutors must respect this change.”
According to the prosecution, further changes to public affairs practices will be decided later, such as whether photo sessions will be allowed for some high-profile cases or if the media will be given briefings afterwards about questionings.
Under the current regulations, the prosecution informs the media in advance about any questioning scheduled for public figures such as former and current senior public servants carrying higher than vice minister titles. The media was also alerted in advance about summons of lawmakers, heads of local autonomous governments, politicians and celebrities.
In those cases, the media were also allowed to take photos of witnesses or suspects when they entered buildings for questioning or arrest.
“Questions have been continuously raised inside and outside the prosecution about the need to improve the public summoning of suspects and witnesses to protect their rights,” the SPO said. It said the prosecution is trying to guarantee human rights while also guaranteeing the people’s right to know and the media’s responsibilities.
The decision was announced shortly after the prosecution faced criticism for summoning Chung Kyung-sim, wife of Justice Minister Cho Kuk, without informing the media. The Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office on Thursday summoned Chung and questioned her mainly about an alleged forgery of an award for her daughter’s medical school application.
Chung arrived for questioning around 9 a.m. and left around 5 p.m. Sources in the prosecution said the questioning actually ended around 4 p.m., because Chung asked it to stop, citing poor health.
“At her request, the questioning was stopped, and she was sent home,” a prosecution official told the JoongAng Ilbo. “We informed her that she will be called for questioning again at a later date.” Sources said Chung left without signing a statement.
The prosecution informed reporters about Chung’s departure only after she left, using a passageway not open to the media.
The opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) complained that the prosecution caved in to administration pressure and gave Chung “imperial” treatment by keeping her away from the media. Ruling party politicians, however, said it was desirable to protect the human rights of the suspect.
Under the changed public affairs rules, the prosecution will not inform the media in advance even if it summons Cho, which would be the first questioning of an incumbent justice minister.
“The change means we won’t make distinctions between public figures and ordinary people,” said an SPO official. “It means we will not inform the media about any questioning schedule.”
He dismissed concerns that the change will infringe upon the public’s right to information. “We don’t intend to keep all investigations secret,” he said. “We want to prevent any possible human rights violations when questioning of suspects is revealed by the media in advance.”
The decision to stop informing the media about questioning schedules is the second reform measure taken by the prosecution this week. On Tuesday, Yoon announced that he will shut down all special investigation departments nationwide, except for three key units.
The series of measures follow President Moon Jae-in’s order that the prosecution must reform its ways of exercising prosecutorial rights and conducting investigations to respect human rights.
Yoon apparently made the decision to announce reform measures day after day to show that the expanding probes into the Cho family are continuing - and can coexist with changes to the ways things are done. Cho, who served as senior presidential secretary for civil affairs in the Moon Blue House and was appointed to head the Justice Ministry last month, is a strong advocate of prosecutorial reform.
Although Moon said the prosecution should carry out reform measures after the investigation into the scandals surrounding Cho and his family, Yoon is defying that message and preemptively implementing the changes.
The prosecution continued its investigation into various allegations surrounding Cho’s family. It asked the Seoul Central District Court to issue a warrant on Friday to detain Cho’s younger brother to investigate suspicions that he filed false lawsuits against the Ungdong School Foundation, which is operated by the Cho family.
The prosecution questioned Cho on Sept. 26, Sept. 27 and on Tuesday about allegations that he and his ex-wife had filed a phony lawsuit to obtain bonds worth 10 billion won ($8.35 million) from the private school foundation. They filed the suit in 2006, but the school did not defend itself, allowing their legal victory. After their divorce, Cho’s ex-wife filed a similar suit again in 2017, and the school again forfeited its defense.
The prosecution believes the school intentionally gave up its rights. It is also looking into the possibility that Cho and his wife were involved in the suspected crimes, as they served as directors of the school foundation at the time of the lawsuits.
Cho’s younger brother is also suspected of receiving bribes in return for offering jobs to teachers. The prosecution also suspects that he tried to tamper with witnesses to get rid of evidence.
If the court issues a warrant, he will become the second member of the Cho family to be taken into state custody. The prosecution had already detained Cho’s cousin’s son and indicted him over alleged financial crimes related to a private equity fund invested in by the Cho family.
Meanwhile, Cho Min, Cho’s 28-year-daughter, broke her silence Friday and denied allegations about her admissions to college and medical school. “The entire family has become a prey of the media,” she said in an interview with TBS radio. “Personally, I think it is cruel.”
Cho Min gave an interview to “Kim Eo-jun’s News Factory,” a program seen as being pro-Moon. In the interview, she said she actually participated in internships and volunteer work to win certificates, dismissing media speculation that they were fake.
She denied the suspicion that her mother forged an award to help her get into medical school. She said she is worried that her mother could falsely admit to the charge to protect her.
“If you read media reports, my mother is already convicted,” she said. “I think she will lay bare her truth through a trial. I will also lay bare the truth in a courtroom, and I will also newly explore my life.”
Cho Min said she did not get her father’s permission for the radio interview. “When I told my father about giving an interview, he fiercely opposed, so I just came here without telling him,” she said. “My parents worry about me so much because I am their young daughter, but I am an adult and this is about me. So I want to make public my position without going through my parents.”
BY SER MYO-JA [email@example.com]