Punitive damages off track

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Punitive damages off track

 The ruling Democratic Party (DP) plans to pass a bill in March fining a news outlet for spreading false news. Its executive decision-making committee has decided to make established news organizations subject to the punitive law after its earlier plan to exclude them after facing a protest from die-hard loyalists of President Moon Jae-in.

DP Chairman Lee Nak-yon claimed the law would be “minimum protection” for victims of fake news and for social security and trust. Rep. Noh Woong-rae, head of a task force for media reform in the DP, said a sharp increase in damage claims could help curb defamatory practices in the media.

However, it is the DP that has often been the epicenter of false and distorted information. It brands any news unfavorable to the government as false or fake news. It may be out to gag the press during the final period of the presidential term. To cite “social security and trust” for an act tantamount to censorship is an action that can only take place in authoritarian regimes or elected governments with such tendencies. The bill only underscores the DP’s “undemocratic” ways.

The law has been strongly protested by media organizations, which call it an “evil law undermining press freedom and civilians’ rights to know.” Even progressive media groups warn the law can be abused by senior government officials, public figures and entrepreneurs. A report from a standing committee of the National Assembly also raised the issue of unconstitutionality as it overlaps with existing systems for compensating damages, including civil and criminal litigation. There are already multiple damage suit provisions and channels on defamation that have been abused by the government and politicians.

Still, the DP is out to use its supermajority of 170 seats to railroad through the bill. Former liberal President Roh Moo-hyun attempted to close the press room at the Blue House 13 years ago, claiming that several reporters in the Blue House press room colluded with their peers to write antigovernment articles. Roh’s move only ended up causing a huge uproar from the press as well as the political and civic communities.

President Moon, who served as Roh’s chief of staff, had a front row seat at that fiasco. As a presidential candidate in 2017, Moon said the press and powers that be must maintain “healthy tension” and, “If the media neglect the wrongdoings of the sitting power and condone them, all would be good for the time being, but in the end blow over.” He applauded the media for its role in helping oust former President Park Geun-hye for abuse of power. The media then and now are no different. The DP must withdraw this evil bill.
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