Accessibility links

Seoul Wants to Rein in Online Media


In South Korea, anti-government protests that erupted this summer following a deal to import American beef were born on the Internet. Rumors that South Koreans were going to be served meat tainted with mad cow disease spread across chat rooms and message boards. Now President Lee Myung Bak hopes to rein in what he sees as irresponsible online media. Jason Strother has the story from Seoul.

Lee Min Gu is a university student by day but by night he reports for Netti News, an online newspaper that in June began covering protests against imports of U.S. beef.

The 21-year-old says his dislike of President Lee Myung-bak was part of the reason he became a so-called citizen journalist.

Lee says, however, despite his dislike of President Lee, he is trying to be as balanced of a journalist as he can be.

Lee is not alone as an online journalist in South Korea. Throughout the summer, many young South Koreans, wearing press badges or T-shirts from media outlets no one had ever heard of, showed up at rallies.

Some witnesses say these reporters did not act impartially. Critics say they only snapped pictures of riot police clashes and their reports were one-sided, in favor of the demonstrators.

The government says biased reporting and the spread of rumors over the Internet caused the protests to get out of control.

Some of the rumors said that South Korean school children would be served U.S. beef tainted with mad cow disease. Another was that Koreans are genetically more susceptible to contracting the bovine sickness than Western people. The rumors spread despite scientific data from the United Nations, the United States and the South Korean government showing the meat is safe.

The Internet in South Korea in general has become a hotbed of cyber-violence. Activists call for boycotts of companies who advertise in conservative newspapers. Some local business owners say they were threatened by protesters because they complained that the anti-beef rallies harmed their livelihoods.

The Internet in South Korea has been used in thousands of personal attacks - with celebrities being stalked and even ordinary people who annoyed someone being hounded by vicious e-mails and Web log entries.

President Lee Myung Bak coined a new word to describe the spread of inaccurate information; he calls it an infodemic.

And to battle it, his governing party has unveiled plans to amend the nation's newspaper law.

If ratified by lawmakers, the new rules will require netizens to reveal their real identities when posting on message boards that attract more than 100,000 visitors.

Another provision will force Web sites to take down material that is untrue or incites violence, for at least 30 days,

The new regulations have drawn fire from opposition parties, civic groups and of course, online media.

Lee Han-ki is editor in chief of Oh My News, a South Korean Internet newspaper with citizen reporters around the world. He says ever since the new president took office in February, he has tried to silence left-leaning media.

Lee says after his newspaper published an article that was critical of the government, the president's office punished the paper. Their access was blocked to news briefings for two months. He says pro-Lee Myung-bak media get preferential treatment and critical media are isolated.

Lee says the president's new rules would push South Korean democracy backward.

But some academics think the stricter regulations are the right way forward.

Kweon Sang-hee, a mass communications professor at Sungkyungwan University in Seoul, says the ethical standards of online media are not on par with the established news media.

"Online and portal sites have strong power to influence in societies. But those portal and online only newspaper companies still remain unreliable," Kweon said.

But Kweon cautions, to protect freedom of speech, the government must clearly define what constitutes malicious content.

Lee Min Gu, the journalist for Netti News, says he will not let new regulations change the way he reports.

He says everyone has a right to speak out about what they think. He thinks that the president needs to reconsider his plans to restrict the nation's freedom of speech.

The new media rules have a good chance of passage in the National Assembly, where President Lee's Grand National Party has the majority of seats. It is expected to go for a vote within a few months.

XS
SM
MD
LG