Anti-corruption watchdog blasted for requesting journalists' phone logsA furor erupted Tuesday over allegations that the state anti-corruption watchdog rifled through the phone records of journalists over unfavorable media coverage of the agency’s chief.
The Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials (CIO) made multiple requests for the phone records of reporters, according to major telecommunications companies in response to inquiries made by the JoongAng Ilbo regarding the CIO’s data requests.
The CIO’s requests for phone data targeted at least 10 journalists from five media outlets who had covered controversies involving CIO chief Kim Jin-wook and other high-ranking public officials.
Eleven of the agency’s data requests from May to October targeted three reporters from the legal affairs team at the JoongAng Ilbo’s social affairs bureau.
The data requests, which were submitted by two teams at the CIO’s investigative department, also targeted six reporters from TV Chosun, the television arm of major conservative newspaper Chosun Ilbo, between June and October, as well as three reporters from the Munhwa Ilbo.
The CIO also requested the phone data of accountant Kim Kyeong-yul, the author of the so-called “Cho Kuk black file,” which lists allegations against former Justice Minister Cho Kuk who was forced to resign over fraudulent academic credentials used by his daughter to garner admission to medical school.
The watchdog denied Monday that its data requests targeted reporters themselves, claiming that the reporters’ phone records were reviewed because they were in contact with suspects in the CIO’s ongoing probes.
However, the CIO’s data requests appeared to cover mainly reporters who covered scandals involving the CIO itself, raising suspicions that those whose phone records were requested by the agency were targeted for releasing unfavorable coverage of the agency.
Data requests involving TV Chosun journalists were submitted after the television channel aired allegations that the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office chief Lee Sung-yoon, who was accused of breaking the law to stop scandal-ridden former Vice Minister Kim Hak-eui from fleeing the country, compromised the integrity of a pending CIO probe by sending a secretary under his command to meet the CIO chief in his government vehicle on April 1, which TV Chosun confirmed through closed-circuit surveillance footage from a building next to the Gwacheon Bypass in Gyeonggi, near the CIO’s headquarters.
The CIO handled the probe request into the allegations raised by a whistleblower who accused the Justice Ministry and Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office of stopping Kim from fleeing when Kim was not technically a criminal suspect in any investigation when the travel ban was issued. The Justice Ministry also illegally accessed Kim’s travel records and conducted illegal surveillance on him, the whistleblower claimed.
Main opposition People Power Party presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol lambasted the CIO for conducting what he characterized as illegal phone surveillance on the media.
“I can't believe this happened in a democracy,” Yoon said. “The CIO was able to conduct surveillance on the media because it has the backing of President Moon Jae-in’s administration.”
An official at the state prosecution service who spoke on the condition of anonymity to the JoongAng Ilbo said regarding the case, "It is clear that the CIO singled out reporters who released critical reports about the current administration."
BY MICHAEL LEE [firstname.lastname@example.org]