Moon’s silence continues

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Moon’s silence continues

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

The shadow of former Justice Minister Cho Kuk hovers over the ruling party’s determination to push through the controversial amendment to the Media Arbitration Act. The pro-Cho rally that occupied the streets around the judiciary headquarters compound in southern Seoul demanded prosecutorial and media reforms. To them, the personal misconduct of the Cho family mattered little. They were outraged by former Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl’s investigations of Cho. The racket over prosecution reforms calmed down with the launch of a new investigation agency for high-level public servants. To muster die-hard Cho supporters ahead of the next presidential election in March, the ruling Democratic Party (DP) is railroading through the evil media arbitration act.

Their narrow arguments coupled with their double standards lead to abnormal conclusions. From their perspective, the press criticizing Cho’s hypocrisy is “anti-reform” and the press therefore should be penalized.

Deep inside their psyche, they are disdainful of a press that was “silent” toward the military regimes of the past and colluded with them while democracy activists were tortured in prison. The press can hardly deny that it capitulated to the authoritarian regimes and licked the boots of a dictator who ordered a massacre. We are ashamed of our past.

But the progressives are mistaken if they think the country’s democracy was achieved solely through their own blood and sweat. Most reporters working for the major newspapers they hate so much did their best to report the truth even if they were allowed tiny space in their papers. The report on the fatal torture of Seoul National University student Park Jong-chul triggered white-collar office workers to join university students en masse in street protests. They are not such corrupt organizations that they must be subject to a draconian law. We cannot accept the black-and-white argument that they represent justice and we are the opposite.

Some of the controversial provisions of the bill have been corrected by protests from home and abroad. But the guidelines for punishment in judging the deliberateness or gravity of false reporting and the definition of falsehood or fabrication remain ambiguous. They can be construed arbitrarily. A reporter cannot know the whole picture of a case of serious corruption from the beginning. Under the law, the reporter could be accused of falsehood or fabrication from the initial stage of exposure and be forced to stop pursuing the subject. Freedom of the press will be seriously undermined if it comes under self-censorship. Press-taming by the ruling force can become easier. The key to democracy — freedom in diversity and expression — will be shaken. Do the people who fought for democracy really want to oppress the media? This is a shame to the country.

The press does not stop keeping watch over the powers that be to defend the citizens’ right to know. The Moon Jae-in administration was in a self-congratulatory mood over its early pandemic success and even pitched a Covid-19 cure under development by a local company as a game-changer. But press reports found the government had missed its chance to buy vaccines and ended up signing contracts on unfavorable terms. The Blue House publicized President Moon video-conferencing with the CEO of Moderna to be promised a supply of 40 million doses this year. But unlike the contacts with the governments of the U.S. and EU, Moderna had not specified the amount of shipments by month or quarter in the contract with the Moon administration. Shipments have so far reached only 6 percent of the promised amount for this year. The vaccination rate of Korea is the lowest among 38 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The government repeatedly massaged housing price hikes when it posted the figures. The press proved that falsehood. So, is the media at fault for misinformation?

Media outlets can frequently fall into the traps of fallacy and bias. They must constantly check whether they are governed by a cave mentality to overlook the bigger picture or the essence by sticking to a certain perspective. It should be self-reflective and mutually critical of one another so as not to miss out on the bigger trend. When one inevitably makes a mistake, a journalist goes through harsh self-reproach. That’s established convention in this business.

The ruling front is not aware of the grave harm it is committing. Judgment day will arrive for Moon. As a presidential candidate, he said, “Silence of the press leads to groans of the people” when the Choi Soon-sil scandal broke out. Recently, the president said press freedom is the “pillar of democracy.” If he is sincere, he must stop a law that will curtail the rightful activities of the press.

Press freedom in Korea has always been weak. Even today, the National Security Law exists as a Cold War remnant. Unlike other democracies, freedom of expression is relatively restricted. And there are civil and criminal laws that can punish misinformation and defamation. Why do we need a separate law to claim five times the damages against media outlets for false reporting? Democracy is being shaken by its roots.
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