South Korean legislation intended to combat what authorities view as “fake news” could undermine press freedom in one of Asia’s strongest democracies, analysts say.
The proposed revision to the Press Arbitration Act, backed by South Korea’s ruling Democratic Party, would significantly expand the ability of courts to punish accredited reporters and media outlets deemed to have intentionally published false information.
If passed, the legislation would amount to a rare example of a liberal democracy responding to the growing challenge of disinformation by targeting traditional media, such as newspapers and television broadcasters.
"At a time when authoritarian governments are increasingly adopting so-called 'fake news' laws to stifle criticism, it is disappointing to see a democratic country like South Korea follow this negative trend," said Scott Griffen, deputy director of the International Press Institute, a Vienna-based free speech monitoring group.
Under the proposal, claimants would be able to sue for up to five times the estimated damage caused by a deliberate dissemination of false news.
That appears to be "utterly disproportionate," according to Irene Khan, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression.
In a letter to South Korea’s government, Khan offered a detailed and forceful critique of the proposed legislation, saying it would provide “excessive discretion to the authorities that may lead to arbitrary implementation.”
The bill’s "very vague language," she added, "may limit a wide range of expression that is essential to a democratic society, including news reporting, criticism of the government, political leaders and other public figures, and the expression of unpopular and minority opinions."
Restoring public trust?
Supporters say the new rules will help improve the South Korean public’s low confidence in domestic media.
According to the latest annual study by the Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford, just 32% of South Koreans trust the media. That is among the lowest of the 46 countries surveyed.
Even so, several opinion polls show only a narrow majority of South Koreans appearing to support the legislation.
"The revision of the [Press] Arbitration Act is the first step toward the media restoring its public credibility," said Representative Kim Seung-won, a member of South Korea’s Democratic Party.
In an interview with VOA, Kim also said the bill will provide more redress for those hurt by inaccurate reports.
“There are more than 4,000 instances each year in which fake news is judged to have caused damage,” he said. “So, it is necessary to relieve those damages, correct misinformation, compel follow-up reports, and strengthen the media’s editorial process.”
Messy media environment
South Korea boasts a free but often divisive and boisterous press. Many of the country’s biggest newspapers have links to chaebols — powerful, family-run conglomerates — and traditionally take a conservative stance on political and economic issues. Other smaller papers are explicitly liberal.
As in other countries, social media has fractured the South Korean media landscape and deepened political divisions.
Polarization intensified after the 2017 impeachment of conservative President Park Geun-hye – the daughter of South Korea’s former military strongman, Park Chung-hee. She was subsequently sentenced to prison on corruption charges.
After the Park scandal, many older conservatives, who respected the country’s former military rulers, became disillusioned with traditional media. They instead migrated to YouTube, which offered alternative information sources.
Some of those far-right YouTube channels peddle far-fetched and unproven assertions, including claims that last year’s legislative election was rigged by shadowy communist forces.
During the pandemic, many conservative leaders have used YouTube to call for mass anti-government protests that violate South Korea’s strict COVID-19 social distancing guidelines.
Other social media have problems, too, including cyberbullying and vicious personal attacks that came to the fore in 2019 after two female Korean pop stars took their own lives.
However, the law under discussion wouldn’t apply to private individuals on social media, only to officially accredited outlets and reporters.
Many journalists complain the bill does not address another major issue: South Korea’s massively influential online portals, such as Naver and Daum, which curate and host news stories from various outlets on their own websites.
Studies have found that most South Koreans rely on such portals as their main source of news. In turn, media outlets rely on the portals as their main source of clicks. That creates pressure for journalists to create content that will be snatched up by the portals’ algorithms.
“If people are so worried about fake news, then they should do something about the editing and transmission rights of news portal sites that dominate South Korea’s news market, as well as YouTubers. But no one talks about that,” said a South Korean reporter at a daily newspaper. The reporter spoke with VOA on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Ruling party lawmakers say they are open to portal reform. But critics say they have been reluctant to take action against the portals, some of which are linked to or run by major South Korean business interests.
South Korean journalists oppose
A wide range of South Korean newspapers, reporters, and journalism associations have criticized the proposal. Many say the new rules would discourage reporting that exposes powerful people and organizations.
“If this act passes, the natural outcome will be more self-censorship by journalists,” said Lee Jin-dong, who heads his own investigative news outlet, Newsverse. “And their companies may pressure them to avoid lawsuits.”
A young broadcast reporter at one of South Korea’s top television news stations said he understands more media regulation is needed, but believes it should be done in a way that doesn’t threaten the idea of journalism itself.
“If this bill passes, I feel I will be unable to raise questions about presidential candidates or possible government ministers or conglomerates,” said the reporter, who also requested anonymity.
Backlash forces delay
Even some ruling party politicians have spoken against the bill.
“There are some problematic provisions within this law,” Lee Sang-min, a Democratic Party lawmaker, told VOA. “The intention is good, but we have to find a better balance between freedom of speech and legal regulation.”
The backlash by South Korean civic groups may be having an effect. Though the legislation was expected to pass late last month, the Democratic Party agreed to delay it while an eight-member “discussion body” discusses possible changes.
In the end, the party can do whatever it wants, due to its parliamentary supermajority. Many journalists are watching closely.
“The press has a lot of problems, it’s true,” said a reporter who covers legal issues. The reporter, like others contacted by VOA, spoke only on condition of anonymity, added, “But the solution is not the current media arbitration law. This will only worsen social conflict.”