The public figure controversy
The author is an industry 1 team reporter of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Public figures should behave properly. While that is old advice, the concept of a public figure is actually ambiguous. It’s been less than 20 years since a Korean court recognized the concept of a public figure. In his book “Who is a Public Figure?,” Lee Seung-seon, a professor of Journalism at Chungnam National University, wrote that though the Supreme Court introduced legal principles of a public figure in 2002, there are few cases clarifying the concept.
Public figures recognized by courts are public officials, politicians, athletes and celebrities who voluntarily participate or intervene in certain public debates. Voluntary nature was presented as a standard for the definition.
The definition of a public figure is important because it is related to the right to know and the freedom to criticize. Until recently, courts did not differentiate defamation suits by public figures and defamation suits by ordinary people. That ended up protecting the honor of public figures while restricting the freedom to criticize people with power. But lately, the boundary of public figures is expanding to “people who are widely known to the general public.”
Controversy over the recent resignation of Cho Dong-yeon as co-chair of the election campaign committee of the DP over her extramarital child is heated. Based on the court judgment, the resigned chairwoman may be classified as a public figure, as she voluntarily participated in public debates, including holding a press conference.
If so, was it right for the media to report on her privacy? Former Professor Chin Jung-kwon claimed that while the social benefit from restricting people with privacy issues from taking public positions is unclear, the damage is rather obvious.
The media has a lot to reflect on. After a YouTube channel raised the issue related to Cho’s private life, the news spread quickly. Without objective verification, many media outlets simply reported it by quoting the YouTuber. Mainstream media played the role of amplifying the influence of the YouTube channel. Prof. Lee said, “As the pattern of media consumption changes, the need to discuss publicity grows.” And yet, the media can hardly keep its hands off the case as it is directly related to the presidential election. Though Cho has left the political scene, she left behind rather heavy questions about public figures in Korean society.