South Korea Fights ‘Pretend Information,’ However Critics Declare It is Gagging the Press   | Voice of America

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA – South Korean legislation aims to combat what the authorities see as “fake news” that could undermine press freedom in one of Asia’s strongest democracies, analysts say.

The proposed revision of the Press Arbitration Act, backed by South Korea’s ruling Democratic Party, would greatly expand the ability of the courts to punish accredited reporters and media outlets believed to have deliberately published false information.

If the law were passed, it would be a rare example of liberal democracy responding to the growing challenge of disinformation by targeting traditional media such as newspapers and television stations.

“At a time when authoritarian governments are increasingly passing so-called ‘fake news’ laws to suppress criticism, it is disappointing to see a democratic country like South Korea following this negative trend,” said Scott Griffen, deputy director of International Press Institute, a Vienna-based group that monitors freedom of expression.

UN concerned

Under the proposal, plaintiffs could sue for up to five times the estimated damage caused by deliberately spreading hoax.

That is “completely disproportionate,” says Irene Khan, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Expression.

In a letter to the South Korean government, Khan criticized the proposed law in great detail, saying it would “give the authorities excessive discretion that could lead to arbitrary implementation.”

The “very vague language” of the bill, she added, “could restrict a wide range of expressions essential to a democratic society, including reporting, criticism of the government, political leaders and other public figures and expression of unpopular and minority opinions. ”

Restore Public Trust?

Proponents say the new rules will help add to the South Korean public’s low level of trust in the local media.

According to the latest annual study by the Reuters Institute at Oxford University, only 32% of South Koreans trust the media. This is one of the lowest of the 46 countries examined.

Still, several opinion polls show that only a slim majority of South Koreans appear to support the legislation.

“The revision of the [Press] The arbitration law is the first step in restoring the public credibility of the media, “said Kim Seung-won, a member of the South Korean Democratic Party.

In an interview with VOA, Kim also said the law will provide more redress for those hurt by inaccurate reports.

“Every year there are more than 4,000 cases where fake news is viewed as harm,” he said. “It is therefore necessary to mitigate this damage, correct misinformation, force follow-up reports and strengthen the editorial process of the media.”

Messy media environment

South Korea has a free, but often divisive and boisterous press. Many of the country’s largest newspapers have ties to chaebols – powerful, family-run conglomerates – and traditionally take a conservative stance on political and economic issues. Other smaller newspapers are explicitly liberal.

FILE – This photo illustration, taken in Seoul on November 9, 2020, features the front pages of South Korean newspapers with stories and pictures of US President-elect Joe Biden.

As in other countries, social media has broken the South Korean media landscape and deepened political divisions.

Polarization intensified after the impeachment in 2017 of Conservative President Park Geun-hye – the daughter of South Korea’s former strongman Park Chung-hee. She was subsequently sentenced to prison on charges of corruption.

After the park scandal, many senior conservatives who respected the country’s ex-military officials became disillusioned with the traditional media. Instead, they migrated to YouTube, which offered alternative sources of information.

FILE PHOTO: Ousted South Korean leader Park Geun-hye arrives at a court in Seoul, South Korea on Aug 25, 2017.  REUTERS / Kim ...

FILE – Ousted South Korean leader Park Geun-hye arrives at a court in Seoul, South Korea on August 25, 2017.

Some of these far-right YouTube channels offer far-fetched and unproven claims, including claims that last year’s parliamentary elections were rigged by shadow communist forces.

During the pandemic, many conservative leaders used YouTube to instigate mass protests against the government violating South Korea’s strict COVID-19 social distancing guidelines.

Other social media are also struggling, including cyberbullying and malicious personal attacks, which came to the fore in 2019 after two Korean pop stars took their own lives.

However, the law in question would not apply to private individuals on social media, but only to officially accredited media and reporters.

Higher clickbait

Many journalists complain that the bill doesn’t address another major issue: South Korea’s massively influential online portals like Naver and Daum, which curate and host news from various media on their own websites.

The Naver homepage can be seen on a screen in Singapore on October 28, 2015.  South Korea’s leading web search provider Naver Corp said on…

FILE – The Naver home page will be displayed on a screen on Oct 28, 2015 in Singapore.

Studies have shown that most South Koreans rely on such portals as their main source of news. The media, in turn, rely on the portals as the main source of clicks. This creates pressure on journalists to create content that is picked up by the portals’ algorithms.

“If people are so concerned about fake news, then they should do something about the editing and broadcasting rights of news portals that dominate the South Korean news market, as well as YouTubers. But nobody talks about it, ”a South Korean reporter told a daily newspaper. The reporter spoke to VOA on condition of anonymity as he was not allowed to speak to the media.

The MPs of the governing parties are open to portal reform. However, critics say they are reluctant to take action against the portals, some of which are affiliated with or operated by major South Korean business interests.

A commuter checks his phone while sitting in a Seoul Metropolitan Subway Station in Seoul on Aug. 24, 2021.  (Photo…

FILE – A commuter checks his phone while sitting in a Seoul Metropolitan Subway Station in Seoul on Aug. 24, 2021.

South Korean journalists are against it

A large number of South Korean newspapers, reporters and journalism associations have criticized the proposal. Many say the new rules will discourage reporting that exposes powerful people and organizations.

“If this law is passed, the natural result will be more self-censorship by journalists,” said Lee Jin-dong, who runs his own investigative news agency, Newsverse. “And their companies can pressure them to avoid lawsuits.”

A young television reporter at one of South Korea’s leading television news channels said he understood the need for more media regulation but believes it should be done in a way that does not threaten the very idea of ​​journalism.

“If this law is passed, I will not be able to ask questions about presidential candidates or possible ministers or conglomerates,” said the reporter, who also asked for anonymity.

Delay in playing forces

Even some politicians in the ruling party have spoken out against the law.

“This law contains some problematic provisions,” Lee Sang-min, a Democratic Party lawmaker, told VOA. “The intent is good, but we need to find a better balance between freedom of expression and legal regulation.”

South Korea's President Moon Jae-in (center L) delivers a speech during the opening ceremony of Sept.

FILE – South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in (center L) delivers a speech during the opening ceremony of the 21st term of the National Assembly in Seoul on July 16, 2020.

The backlash from South Korean citizen groups could have an impact. Although the law was expected to be passed late last month, the Democratic Party agreed to postpone it while an eight-member “panel” discusses possible changes.

In the end, the party can do what it wants because of its superior parliamentary power. Many journalists look closely.

“The press has a lot of problems, that’s true,” said a reporter who deals with legal issues. Like others contacted by VOA, the reporter spoke only on condition of anonymity and added: “But the solution is not the current Media Arbitration Act. This will only worsen the social conflict. ”

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