Former Channel A reporter charged in blackmail case
Prosecutors on Wednesday indicted a former Channel A reporter and two of his ex-colleagues for attempted extortion, the first criminal charges to emerge from an investigation into an alleged conspiracy with a high-level prosecutor to smear a media personality close to the administration.
Lee Dong-jae, 35, who has been under pretrial detention since July 17, is accused of blackmailing a convicted executive named Lee Cheol to obtain incriminating information on Rhyu Si-min, a liberal pundit with close ties to the Moon Jae-in administration.
The indictment against Lee and two of his former colleagues at Channel A did not, however, include allegations of conspiracy with Han Dong-hoon, a senior prosecutor and ally of Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl, suggesting the investigation was unable to prove they colluded to cook up a plot against Rhyu.
The case emerged publicly through an investigative report broadcast by MBC in late March, which appeared to corroborate widespread allegations of chumminess between the media and the state prosecution service.
The subsequent investigation into Lee and Han by the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office drew further controversy, fueling a feud between Yoon and Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae over the probe’s validity.
Liberal pundits have alleged that Yoon attempted to convene that panel in order to effectively block the probe into a close ally, whose alleged conduct bolstered arguments that state prosecution service was failing to uphold a principle of political neutrality.
District prosecutors on the case said Lee Dong-jae and one of his colleagues, surnamed Baek, sent five letters to Lee Cheol in prison, claiming they could help the businessman face lighter punishment for a financial scandal the he was embroiled in by giving up information on Rhyu.
MBC also claimed in its original report that Lee Dong-jae told Lee Cheol’s representative — a man surnamed Ji who later gave MBC the story — that he had spoken to Han over the phone and had obtained the prosecutor’s consent to coerce Lee Cheol.
Ji, however, has been accused by right-wing civic groups of setting a trap for Lee Dong-jae and engineering the scandal in concert with pro-government figures and MBC.
Prosecutors said they would continue their investigation into Han and Ji.
As to why the former was not listed on Lee Dong-jae’s indictment, prosecutors said they were having difficulty conducting forensic analysis on his phone, which they obtained through a warrant days earlier. Han was not cooperating in disclosing the phone’s contents, so the probe into his involvement has been lagging behind, they said.
Investigators' collection of the phone and other evidence against Han last week resulted in a physical scuffle between Han and the lead prosecutor in the case, Jeong Jin-ung.
According to Han, Jeong body slammed him as he tried to enter the password to unlock the phone to make the call. Jeong said he was trying to stop Han from deleting evidence on his phone.
Broadcaster KBS has also become mired in controversy, after running an investigative report claiming it obtained a recorded conversation between Lee and Han that showed the two had conspired. The allegation proved to have little substance after Lee’s lawyers disclosed the recording in full. KBS’s labor union filed a criminal complaint against the company for running the unconfirmed report.
BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [email@example.com]