Scrap the media billThe ruling Democratic Party (DP) is pressing ahead with a very controversial media arbitration bill. On Tuesday, the Culture, Sports and Tourism Committee of the National Assembly deliberated on the contentious bill, which would allow punitive damages of up to five times the damages claimed against media companies for alleged “fake news.” It would even block internet access to articles deemed false. The committee, dominated by the DP, plans to put the bill to a vote in a full session of the legislature next Wednesday.
The bill has been vehemently criticized by the opposition People Power Party (PPP) but also pro-government press organizations for attempting to gag the media with draconian regulations. In the face of strong opposition to the bill, the DP took a step back by banning high-level officials, including elected officials, from filing for punitive damages and by stipulating that alleged victims, not media outlets, prove any ill intention in news reports.
Despite such minor revisions, the bill has fundamental problems. First of all, its standard for “fake news” is ambiguous, and second, even minor, careless mistakes are liable to ridiculous punishment based on abstract and arbitrary standards. Such a malicious bill must be scrapped, rather than tinkered with. If the DP pushes the bill despite its obvious drawbacks, the Moon Jae-in administration will be denounced for trying to create a supine press ahead of the next presidential election.
False reports should be corrected and the maligned deserve financial compensation. Yet this legislation is a typical case of burning the house to kill fleas. Who would really determine if something is fake news. What is the standard? The attempt is an eerie reminder of our authoritarian governments from the past.
The raison d’être of the press is keeping watch on the powers that be and criticizing them if they make mistakes. If a government restricts the freedom of the press for fear of criticism, democracy retreats — and that will only hurt the public. If the media had not reported the Choi Soon-sil scandal in the Park Geun-hye administration, it would have been hidden forever. During his presidential campaign for the snap election that brought him to power in 2017, Moon Jae-in said, “Silence of the press leads to groans of the people.” But his government is trying to gag the press.
A number of media organizations, including the liberal National Union of Media Workers and the Journalists Association of Korea, criticize the government for “fueling public hatred against the press after enjoying the greatest benefits from freedom of speech.” What better description of the current situation can be found than that?