A retreat of democracy
The author is a national news editor of JoongAng Ilbo.
In his speech at the National Assembly on Sept. 8, Rep. Yun Ho-jung, floor leader of the ruling Democratic Party (DP), praised the Moon Jae-in administration’s accomplishments such as the K-style disease control and prevention and “Operation Miracle” to evacuate Afghans who had worked with Korea from their war-torn country. “The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development in July unanimously raised Korea’s status from a developing economy to a developed one,” Yun said. “The Moon administration will be recorded in history as a government that upgraded Korea to an advanced country.”
And yet, a controversial revision to the Media Arbitration Law, which includes clauses that can gag press freedom, is about to be railroaded by the DP in this “advanced country.” The ruling and opposition parties started a negotiation with a plan to vote on it on Sept. 27, but DP is ready to wield its majority to pass it alone.
The bill would impose a five-fold increase in penalties on media outlets to punish fake or fabricated reports, intentional or accidental. In the United States, punitive damage is often exercised, but no criminal punishment is handed down for defamation. If this law is passed, the Korean media will face not only criminal liabilities but also heavy civil damages. Furthermore, as the bill includes many ambiguous clauses, media organizations criticized that it will undermine press freedom.
In his speech, Yun pointed out past wrongful news reported by media, which led to the bankruptcy of some businesses. Media reports he cited had many problems, but they are not enough justification for the DP to push forward this bill.
What’s the reason for the party to railroad this bill as soon as possible? Is it really because of the wrongful reports from three decades ago? More likely, the reason is the DP’s extended battle of the Cho Kuk crisis, as pointed out by Chin Jung-kwon, a former professor at Dongyang University and a political commentator.
On Aug. 26, 2019, when the Cho Kuk crisis was in its peak, a petition was filed on the Blue House petition board. “We want stronger punishments for fake news from media,” the petition said. The online petition received 229,000 supports.
“Recently, indiscreet and indiscriminate fake news about Justice Minister-nominee [Cho] is flooding our media. There are nearly 20,000 reports about the nominee. It is shocking that most of them are not true,” the petitioner claimed.
As there are countless media reports, some reports might have contained wrong information. But were they really all fake? Some media admitted they made wrongful reports, but when the issues are controversial, we need to wait and see the judiciary’s judgements.
Cho’s wife, Chung Kyung-sim, faced many convictions in the district and high court trials and many of her suspicions were already raised by news media. Cho’s younger brother was acquitted by a district court about a fraud, but the high court convicted him of breach of trust.
This means that many reports cannot be concluded as fake news, unless we have Supreme Court rulings. Just because the subjects in the reports do not agree with them, we cannot say it is fake news. That is pressuring media to give up its role of raising suspicions or making verification.
When the Supreme Court convicted former South Gyeongsang Governor Kim Kyoung-soo for conspiring with a political blogger to manipulate online public opinion to help President Moon win the 2017 election, some people still criticized the judgement and denied it. If so, why does the DP want to make an ambiguous law and ask its “unreliable judiciary” to apply it?
In fact, the problem of fake news is not just an issue of media. Imagine that a lawmaker caused serious damage to the people by spreading incorrect facts. If so, how about enacting a law that forces the lawmaker to pay a tenfold penalty?
After the DP won the overwhelming majority in the National Assembly, laws were created too easily. But many of the new laws are not aimed at improving the people’s freedom but at reinforcing regulations and punishments on them. As a result, the new laws often fail to produce expected outcomes.
Although the Corruption Investigation Office (CIO) for high-ranking officials was launched, prosecution reform was not successful. Investigating crimes became harder because the investigative authorities differ depending on the types of crimes and status of suspects. It would have been better for the CIO to have the power to investigate and indict only judges, prosecutors and top police officers. Now, the government is poised to start its second round of prosecution reform. When you don’t have skills, you have to tackle the task multiple times rather than finishing it at once.
There will be unexpected consequences if the revised media law is passed without social consensus. Press freedom is not guaranteed because we love media. When media is threatened, they cannot keep the sitting power in check and that will hurt our democracy.