Issues with Korean journalism are much worse than false celebrity rumours

Fans of Korean entertainment often bemoan how terrible reporting can be on celebrity news. Whether it’s falsified stories about girl group members leaving the idol world forever, biased reporting towards certain entertainers or articles on news portals mysteriously disappearing, many people feel that there is serious room for improvement in the reporting and ethics of Korean entertainment journalism.

But this all pales into insignificance when compared with the issues facing political and current affairs journalism in South Korea right now. Issues so serious that many analysts are warning that the free press may be in danger under President Park Geun-hye’s government.

There have been a number of cases in the past few months in which the president and other senior government officials have brought lawsuits against their detractors. Media outlets both in Korea and abroad have criticised the actions as aggressive and intimidating.

Kato wrote for Sankei Shimbum, a Japanese paper controversial for its historical revisionism

Kato wrote for Sankei Shimbum, a Japanese paper controversial for its historical revisionism

The most high profile case took place in October when a Japanese journalist was charged with criminal libel against President Park. He had reported on rumours, previously published in Korea, that at the time of the tragic Sewol ferry crash, the president had been involved in some kind of personal relations with a man.

On top of this, Park and her presidential aides are also suing a number of Korean media outlets for various different reports which paint the administration in a bad light. This includes Korea’s largest newspaper, the Chosun Ilbo, for reports that a presidential aide was involved in appointing new chairpersons for a couple of large Korean companies; Christian paper, the Segye Ilbo (‘Ilbo’ means ‘Daily’) for accusing Park’s Chief of Staff from before she became president of meddling in state affairs and, most recently, the Dong-A Ilbo for reporting that the President’s current chief of staff had commissioned a report on this incident.

Another paper that has had particularly poor treatment is the Hankyoreh, a left-leaning outlet which is often critical of the government. Not only has the organisation been sued for defamation for a story it printed accusing President Park of staging a photo with a young girl at the site of the Sewol ferry tragedy, it was also at the centre of another case in which a university lecturer was accused of breaking election law.

Yoo So-hee and some of the articles she gave her class (Source: Hankyoreh)

Yoo So-hee and some of the articles she gave her class (Source: Hankyoreh)

Yoo So-hee, a sociology lecturer at Yeungnam University, was found guilty and fined one million won for handing out copies of Hankyoreh articles to her students. The prosecutors claimed because all the articles were from the same source and some were critical of Park, while she was standing as a candidate for presidency, that it constituted election campaigning and she had abused her position of authority.

In court, Yoo had contested that she had chosen articles that she thought would give her students more knowledge about the world not specifically because they criticised Park. When asked why all the articles were from the same newspaper and not from any of Korea’s more conservative titles, she said simply “I subscribe to the Hankyoreh.”

Perhaps only giving students articles from one source is biased, although several students testified she did not attempt to sway their votes according to the Hankyoreh’s report, but surely this should be dealt with by some kind of university disciplinary action? Does one lecturer giving one class a few newspaper articles, some of which were critical of a particular candidate, really a big enough issue to be charged with violating election law (and potentially causing her to lose her job)? Park still got elected after all.

President Park is not the first Korean leader to use this defamation law to try to silence critics. A report from the UN in 2011 found that the country, under the then government of President Lee Myung-bak (Park’s fellow party member), did not do enough to protect human rights for citizens particularly those surrounding freedom of expression and political opinion. Lee was involved in a well-publicised defamation case of his own in 2011 when one of the hosts of a popular satirical podcast was jailed for a year for slandering the president.

Roh Moohyun sadly took his own life in 2009.

Roh Moohyun sadly took his own life in 2009.

And it’s not just conservatives that have used this tactic. Liberal president and former human rights lawyer, Roh Moo-hyun sued four newspapers in 2003 for accusations that he had been involved in some dodgy property transactions.

The biggest issue here is with Korea’s defamation laws. Criminal defamation laws, where the accused can be sent to prison rather than simply being given a fine, are often considered to be a potential threat to democracy as they offer too much leverage with which to threaten government critics. This is made even worse because the defendant must not just prove the truth of the accusation but that it is of public interest. This leaves far too much leeway for potential abuse.

Viriginie Dangles from journalistic freedom organisation Reporters Without Borders said in a statement on the trial of the Japanese journalist:

“The news value of the content of these rumours and the newspaper’s reasons for reporting them could be the subject of journalistic debate.

“But leaving the courts to decide these issues on their own is dangerous, firstly because South Korea’s defamation law violates international standards by providing for jail terms, and secondly because a conviction would lead to an increase in self-censorship by both South Korean and foreign media.”

Journalism is often not that great and journalists can be often be self-involved and self-serving. This does not change the fact that freedom of the press and freedom of expression are vital elements of a healthy democracy.

For such a young democracy, the country only elected its first leader democratically in 1987, in many ways South Korea has a very good democratic process. There are always protests happening, people make their voices heard on the streets and voter turnout is much higher than the many more developed democracies. However when it comes to freedom of expression, things seem to be going backwards.

Much Korean journalism could do with serious improving but this is not going to happen if government is trying to meddle in their affairs. Korean citizens should have the right to criticise and question pubic officials. As the Economist puts it so perfectly:

“President Park says that by insulting her, the likes of Mr Kato insult her nation. Her nation might wonder whether the greater insult was to its hard-won democracy.”

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  • Shayna

    Yes, isn’t holding a political bias the prerogative of academics? It still seems unfathomable to me that such a charge could legally be brought in purportedly democratic system. Doesn’t even seem worthy of internal institutional disciplinary action.

  • contortionist

    Remember #Gamergate? Pretty much thought us mainstream media here is controlled by a small number of stubborn ideologues. Ugh. Gets me so angry thinking about it again. So yeah, I support tougher libel laws. Journalists accountable for lies and rumor mongering? Why not. It only helps with maintaining journalism ethics.