Press rebels against sweeping Justice Ministry guidelines

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Press rebels against sweeping Justice Ministry guidelines

Korea’s largest journalist group accused the government Thursday of trying to control the media, saying the Ministry of Justice’s new press guidelines will undermine their role of keeping watch on the prosecution.

The Journalists Association of Korea urged the government to “immediately halt” the measures, saying it was “going too far.”

As prosecutors continue to investigate allegations surrounding former Justice Minister Cho Kuk and his family, the Ministry of Justice on Wednesday announced a new directive for ministry officials and prosecutors dealing with reporters, which was part of the Moon Jae-in administration’s drive to bring reforms to the prosecution.

What prompted a quick backlash from reporters was the enforcement of an ignored rule that bars them from entering prosecution buildings if the head of that office deems they “infringed upon the human rights” of anyone involved in a case - including suspects, witnesses and defendants - through their news report. That specific rule wasn’t included in a draft version of the guidelines that was distributed to the prosecution’s press corps beforehand.

The Justice Ministry said the new press guidelines go into effect Dec. 1 and do not need confirmation from the National Assembly.

The entrance ban rule did not clearly state by what criteria the office head would use to determine if a report is a violation of human rights, leading reporters to claim that the government may use it to gag perceived critics of the Moon administration. It was that very concern that restrained the ministry from enforcing a similarly-worded entrance ban, which was adopted in 2010.

Journalists in the prosecution’s press corps, who have access to off-the-record media briefings and close physical contact with ministry officials and prosecutors, reacted furiously to the entrance ban rule. They complained the Justice Ministry gave no prior notice, unlike other rules in the guidelines.

Some reporters accused the government of trying to protect Cho, who resigned last month after just 35 days as justice minister.

In a text message to members of the prosecution’s press corps Thursday, the ministry explained that a reporter would have to produce “a grave false report that violates human rights” in order for the ministry to “review” his or her ability to enter buildings. It added that any complaints about its press guidelines will be “actively reviewed” for further improvement.

The ministry said it looks forward to creating a “reasonable” set of criteria with the press corps and each prosecution office to determine what may constitute a grave false report.

Among other rules announced Wednesday, most of which were already told to reporters, the ministry said spokespeople of the prosecution will be banned from having “tea time” sessions with reporters, through which they used to casually relay background information. Prosecutors or investigators will be banned from having any “personal contact” with a reporter or anyone working for a media company and cannot present any information about a criminal case that is ongoing.

Spokespeople will not be allowed to inform the media about when suspects or witnesses in a criminal case are scheduled to appear for questioning before they arrive at the prosecution building, and they will only be allowed to relay information about a case that has been officially authorized by the head of the prosecution office. For indictments, spokespeople will be allowed to release only “limited” information to the press and on the condition that the public needs to know and a suspect’s “right to receive fair trial” will not be violated.

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