Gagging a democracy

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Gagging a democracy

Lee Ha-kyung
The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.


I remember receiving a letter from my daughter when she was a kindergartener. The clumsy writing read: “Daddy, come home early tonight.” In my days as rookie reporter, I wasn’t at home very much. I left at dawn and came home past midnight. There were always unexpected things going on, and we had to be on the scene to see what really happened. It was a battlefield. When competitors reported faster, we were scolded for being lame.

Still, our heads were clear and our hearts warm. We had the pride of being lonely guardians of the public interest in a world dominated by selfishness and injustice. Two years ago, I had a chance to converse with Bob Woodward, associate editor of the Washington Post, famous for breaking the Watergate scandal that led to the resignation of U.S. President Richard Nixon in 1974. The legendary journalist in his late 70s told me how he still wonders what the bad guys are hiding when he wakes up in the morning. Many Korean reporters still work with a galloping heart. A reporter chasing a case with unwavering determination can change the world. He or she can contribute to defending democracy and making history.

In Korea, the ruling Democratic Party (DP) is pressing ahead with a draconian media bill later this month. It would allow punitive damages of up to five times damages claimed against media companies for alleged “fake news” and even seeks to block internet access to articles deemed false. If the bill passes, aggressive coverage against the powers that be could be a thing of the past. Injustice and corruption could prevail and hurt the socially weak. Veteran legal experts, including former judge and president of the International Criminal Court Song Sang-hyun and former Korean Bar Association President Kim Hyun, worry that a bill restricting the freedom of expression can undermine democracy. They advise to keep regulation, if needed, to the minimum level.

The DP could never have reached today’s peak of commanding a supermajority in the legislature if a punitive media law had existed in the past. None of the historical events leading to Korea’s modern democracy — from the breaking news of the torture and killing of a Seoul National University (SNU) student, which triggered massive student democracy rallies in June 1987, to the coverage of a tablet PC file that exposed the clandestine relationship between Choi Soon-sil and President Park Geun-hye, which led to an unprecedented presidential impeachment and ouster and a snap election — would have been possible.

The mysterious death of Park Jong-chul, the SNU student, was reported by Shin Sung-ho, a reporter from the JoongAng Ilbo, on Jan. 14, 1987. Acting editor in chief Keum Chang-tae stopped a printing press in the middle of the night to publish the highly explosive report. The Chun Doo Hwan regime denied any use of waterboarding torture on the student. The head of the National Police, Kang Min-chang, called Lee Doo-seok, the national desk at the JoongAng Ilbo, to warn him of accountability if a prosecutorial probe found no sign of torture in the death.

Another newspaper Dong-A Ilbo followed up on the report. Two autopsy doctors and prosecutor Choi Hwan took a risk and told the truth in their testimonies. If a punitive press law had existed, the truth could have been hidden forever by the “bad guys,” to quote Woodward.

Exposing and publishing uncomfortable truths always comes with a risk. The work demands courage to confront the overwhelming power till the end. It cannot be done without a steadfast commitment to journalism to find the truth and serve the public good no matter what.

If the controversial bill takes effect, it will deal a fatal loss to our community. Sohn Jie-won, a legal counsel at Open Net — an NGO advocating free speech — predicts abuse by those in power, who will be able to file suits against news organizations for any unfavorable articles or critical coverage. The DP is pursuing the controversial law as it believes the press is critical of it.

But the DP must stop and reconsider before it crosses the final line. None of its major policies — income-led growth, real estate, the nuclear reactor phase-out — are likely to go down in history as positive for this country. Even its morality was questioned for its blind defense of former Justice Minister Cho Kuk despite the findings of corruption in his family. If the media had played along, it would have been an accomplice to the bad guys. It would have become the bad guys.

The DP is making a high-stakes gamble to shut down critical coverage ahead of the presidential election next March. Even Vice Culture Minister Oh Yeong-woo found the bill “unprecedented.” Still, all presidential candidates from the DP think the bill must get tougher. “Five-times penalty is too weak. A media organization must go bust if it releases pernicious fake news,” said Lee Jae-myung, Gyeonggi Governor and frontrunner in polls among DP candidates. “I would cheer for the revision if I were a reporter,” said Lee Nak-yon, the former DP chairman who used to be a journalist.

A conflict should be exposed to keep the democratic system alive. The community must debate ongoing challenges and how to address them. The new press law, however, would deafen critical coverage and the freedom of expression. It is a denial of democracy as it defies Article 21 of our Constitution, which guarantees freedom of the press and publication. Journalists would become a mouthpiece for a totalitarian government if they give up their critical voice against the powers that be.

If the press becomes a propaganda machine, truth cannot exist. People will be fed with a fantasized reality. After all the blood and sweat it spent to achieve democracy in this land, why does the DP want to take the country back to the days of shadow and dictatorship?
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