Gagging the press

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Gagging the press

The ruling Democratic Party (DP) has started pressing on with the revision of the Arbitration Law to impose a gag order on the freedom of speech in Korea. Following the submission on July 6 of a related bill, the DP forced it through a Culture, Sports and Tourism Committee meeting Tuesday. The DP wants to pass the bill in a plenary session of the National Assembly by the end of August before the party hands over the chairmanship of the committee to the opposition People Power Party (PPP). DP floor leader Yun Ho-jung said the government took a first step toward media reform to “protect the people from fake news and establish a fair press habitat.”

The DP should be ashamed of this dangerous legislation attempt. First of all, the passage of the revision violated some basic principles of democracy. The party passed a revision on its own even without fixing the details. The PPP was not informed of alternative options for the revision. Committee members of the PPP expressed anger at the DP’s overbearing ways in the committee. The ruling party’s act constitutes a brazen violation of the opposition’s right to participate in legislation.

Poisonous clauses are aplenty in the proposed bill. For instance, the bill allows alleged victims of fake news to lodge a complaint to get compensation up to five times their claimed damages. As existing criminal law can fully cover such damages, the introduction of punitive damages on top of that is redundant. According to the revision, compensation by media organizations is also determined in an unreasonable way: based on the amount of their revenues in the previous year. You cannot find such legislation in any part of the world. That’s not all. The revision regulates the space, length or time of a correction, which is an unabashed infringement on the autonomy of the press.

A controversial clause on the “assumption of intentional and grave mistakes” is dumbfounding due to its arbitrariness and ambiguity. The revision forces media outlets — not the victims — to prove the illegitimacy of intentional and erroneous reports. That clashes with our civil law. In the United States, victims must prove maliciousness even if news media makes an error.

Five press associations, including the Journalists Association of Korea, released a statement Wednesday threatening to block the DP from passing the bill. Their joint statement described it as a “frontal challenge against the freedom of expression, a Constitutional value.” The DP must stop its attempt to gag the press ahead of the March 9 presidential election next year.

The DP was heavily criticized for its enactment of bills to punish people who “distort” the spirit of the May 18, 1980 Democracy Movement in Gwangju and those who dispatch anti-North Korean leaflets across the border. We cannot but wonder if the DP is really a democratic party.
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