Democracy feeds on criticismThe ruling Democratic Party (DP) backed by a super majority of 277 seats in the 300-member National Assembly is again pursuing legislation that could undermine the freedom of the press. Rep. Jung Cheong-rae, a DP lawmaker, has filed a revised bill on the media mediation act to introduce punitive damage that allows the court to raise the amount of compensation up to three times the amount of the original sum if malicious media publications or broadcasting seriously impaired the dignity of the plaintiff. The revised law would guarantee financial compensation for fake news or false reports.
The bill raises two serious concerns. First, defining “malicious” reporting can differ. The court will have the last say, but the government could build up consensus to frame what is “malicious.” Since views can differ due to conflicts of interest, the provision can work more or less as censorship that can impair freedom of speech, a key pillar in democracy.
Second, applying punitive damage in the media realm is another source of controversy. Local laws recognized the imposition of costly damages in cases involving the protection of subcontractors from unfair deals, the environment, and privacy in the past. But they refrained from applying the same standards to the media so as not to undermine the press’ role in keeping oversight on power. Jung filed for a similar bill in 2013, but it was struck down in the legislature.
Jung’s motive also has been questioned. On Facebook, he wrote that he wished to seek damages up to 30 times and 300 times, but for now he would settle for enacting a law legalizing the penalty. He proposed a controversial law without regard for potential consequences, because his move suggests a pursuit of legal protections against unfavorable reporting on the ruling power.
The press has the duty to correct inaccurate reports and compensate if they caused damage. There are established mechanisms and procedures to protect civilian rights from unfair press reports. For instance, civilians can demand corrections through the Press Arbitration Commission or file lawsuits against media organizations and reporters. Extra punitive damages would only put the freedom of the press at risk.
The liberal administration has been hyper-sensitive to press reports. The DP proposed a bill in October last year to levy 10 percent fines on platform operators that did not filter out fake news, but later scrapped it. The DP may be attempting to press ahead with the penalty in the new National Assembly. Democracy feeds on criticism. A power without oversight can rot. The ruling party must immediately stop its move that could threaten the freedom of the press.
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