Cost of trustless society
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Whenever there’s an opportunity, the powers-that-be justify their political tricks with lame excuses. The current administration’s attempt to introduce a system of punitive damages to gag the press is an example. Politicians who promote media reform always say that the trust in Korean media is the lowest in the world. They said Korea was ranked at the bottom among the 40 countries in the survey by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) last year. The results of the survey were often cited as evidence that Korean media are unreliable and press reform is urgently needed.
That was actually a fake news. The survey asked people if you can trust most news most of the time. In the ideologically spilt society of Korea, no one would say yes, because media reports are extremely partisan. If the question was “Do you trust news that you are reading?”, the outcome will be different.
The RISJ also analyzed the data in the same way. It concluded that the more the society is split, the less the people trust news. It was not because the media are inferior, but because news media are reporting with perspectives that the people do not necessarily agree on.
When different scales were used for the same question — if you can trust most news most of the time — the outcome was different. After the institute attached 1 to 5 points for the answers — do not agree at all, do not agree, neutral, agree, and actively agree, respectively — Korea was ranked the 36th among the 40 countries.
According to the report, the UK was ranked the 37th followed by France, the United States, and Chile. If the Moon Jae-in administration’s interpretation of the report is true, the U.S., UK and French media have the worst trust.
In fact, former Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae publically lied at least three times, including at a confirmation hearing in the National Assembly, but she faced no punishment. She said she had never ordered her aide to call a military unit for her son to get a special leave, but the investigation later showed that was a lie. Although the public demanded her punishment for a perjury during the hearing, lawmakers are not cooperating to pass such a law. Priority should be put on removing this loophole.
If an innocent citizen suffered damage due to a media company’s greed and malicious intention or negligence of a reporter, the victim deserves compensation. To prevent a recurrence of similar incidents, a system of punitive damages can be considered. But if the administration is using it to oppress the press, it must be stopped.
An example is the recent controversy of Supreme Court Chief Justice Kim Myeong-su. Although Kim did tell a judge that he won’t accept a senior judge’s resignation in order to allow the ruling Democratic Party (DP) to impeach him, Kim vehemently denied it. If the judge had not recorded the conversation and released it later, Chief Justice Kim would probably maintain he had never said so, and threaten to file a defamation suit against the media outlet that reported the judge’s account.
There is a practice known as “Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.” It is an act of initiating a suit against a media company to silence its criticism. As the government, public institutions and local governments have budgets they can freely use, media companies and journalists face trouble if they are sued.
If the punitive damages are introduced, media organizations will be responsible for enormous burdens when a reporter makes a mistake or a source changes his or her mind, regardless of whether the report was true or not. If risks are too high, the media will hesitate to raise a reasonable doubt.
As Francis Fukuyama said, trust in an individual and a government institution is a valuable social asset. But unfortunately, Korea is a society of low trust.
According to the last year’s survey on social assets, including trust, Korea was ranked the 139th out of 167 countries. When the Moon administration fuels distrusts on the media following on the prosecution and the judiciary, the country has no future.