The media crumbled

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The media crumbled


An Hye-ri
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

I am embarrassed. No one asked for it, but I knelt down. It was exposed that I was trapped in self-censorship because of the power.

On Oct. 23, 2019, 58 days after the prosecutors began their investigation, Dongyang University Professor Chung Kyung-sim, wife of former Justice Minister Cho Kuk, stood at the photo line of the Seoul Central District Court for arrest warrant review, and the media blurred her face.

All broadcasters except for Channel A, such as SBS, YTN and TV Chosun, did not show her face in the live news. KBS, which charges citizens a broadcasting fee, did not broadcast live. Yonhap News, a state news agency that receives 33.2 billion won ($28.3 million) from the government and charges a separate fee from other media companies, provided a blurred image only.

So readers of digital news, smaller media outlets, evening newspaper Munhwa Ilbo and other morning newspapers the next day could only see a blurred image or Chung’s back. Chosun, DongA and Kukmin printed photos, and JoongAng and Munhwa showed her face on Oct. 24 after an arrest warrant was issued.


Left: The photo of Chung Kyung-sim, the wife of former Justice Minister Cho Kuk, was pixelated when News1 released it. Right: The JoongAng Ilbo printed the photo that shows Chung’s face in its Oct. 24th edition after an arrest warrant was issued. [NEWS1, KANG JUNG HYUN]

It is extremely unusual. I don’t remember blurring the face of a suspect standing at the photo line who is involved in a case on which people’s attention is focused. No media explained why the exception was made for Professor Chung. I think they couldn’t, not didn’t.

The face of Dankook University Medical School Professor Chang Young-pyo, who is associated with the admission corruption charge of Professor Chung, was made public by all media when he reported to the prosecutors’ investigation as a witness. But Professor Chung’s investigation was not open to the public. Dongbu Group’s former Chairman Kim Jun-ki, who is charged with sexually assaulting his housekeeper, was shown handcuffed on the same day of Professor Chung’s warrant review.

I really cannot understand, if I recall the media report when former-President Park Geun-hye was impeached. In October 2016, Choi Soon-sil stood at the photo line of the Seoul Central Prosecutors’ Office, and she, a civilian, lowered her head and tried to hide her face by wearing a hat, glasses and scarf.

But the photo line was broken, and as she was moving 10 meters to the building, she got swept away by the reporters, losing her hat, glasses and one shoe. She barely made it into the investigation room, and the photo of Choi with disheveled hair and blurry eyes was all over the media.

A journalist reported Choi’s daughter, Chung Yoo-ra, to the police, something that is unprecedented in the history of international media, and when she returned after being imprisoned in Denmark, she stood at the photo line handcuffed. The investigation was excessive. Two warrants were rejected and she was not charged. But the media published her photo indiscriminately for warrant review and when she appeared as a witness for trials of others.

Former Defense Security Command chief Lee Jae-su, whom the current administration labeled as long-standing evil, stood at the photo line handcuffed in December, and while his arrest warrant was rejected, he killed himself out of “humiliation.”

I am not saying the practice of leading someone to kill himself is right. The human rights infringement of shaming someone at the photo line before sentencing has been a constant controversy in the media. However, before Professor Chung, it was the rule to disclose the face of a suspect at the photo line. I cannot deny it is to please the public, but there is also a tacit media principle to prioritize the people’s right to know before the rights of the suspect.

The court also sided with the media. When actress Jeon Yang-ja, a key member of the Guwonpa, or Salvation Sect, involved in the Sewol ferry tragedy, appeared at the prosecutors’ office, her companion raised a lawsuit for portrait right infringement. In the trial, the court widely acknowledged the freedom of reporting as Jeon did not express the intention to refuse being photographed, as she kept her head straight and took off her hat.

In 2014, former Korean Air Lines vice president Cho Hyun-ah stood at the photo line whenever she appeared at the police office, prosecutors’ office and at court for her trial over the so-called “nut rage” incident. When she again stood at the photo line in May 2018 for illegally hiring housekeepers, no media had a second thought about her portrait right.

Today, many journalism scholars raise the issue of human rights infringement by the media.

So people would think the media crumbled before power rather than became concerned with human rights sensitivity over photographing Professor Chung. So Oct. 23, 2019 is a day of humiliation for Korean media. I am devastated and embarrassed.

JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 25, Page 32
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