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Under Yoon, South Korea Defamation Cases Against Media Rise

FILE - South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol speaks during an interview with Reuters at the Presidential Office in Seoul, South Korea, April 18, 2023.
FILE - South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol speaks during an interview with Reuters at the Presidential Office in Seoul, South Korea, April 18, 2023.

When South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol was caught on a hot mic last year using vulgar language after meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden, the South Korean press pounced on the story.

Several reported that Yoon had referred to U.S. lawmakers as "bastards" — a potential embarrassment for a leader who has prioritized closer ties with the United States, a longtime ally.

Yoon's office was livid and insisted the president had actually disparaged South Korean, not American, lawmakers.

MBC, one of South Korea's largest broadcasters, was the first to report the remarks.

On Yoon's next overseas trip, MBC reporters were banned from the president's plane. Yoon accused the outlet of harming the national interest.

And Yoon's government and figures in his ruling People Power Party filed three complaints to prosecutors — one civil and two criminal — accusing MBC staff of defamation.

The incident fits a pattern under Yoon, a former prosecutor general, whose administration is pursuing criminal charges against critical journalists and media outlets at a record pace.

VOA examined publicly available information about instances in which the government or ruling party filed defamation complaints to state prosecutors against a news outlet, a journalist or an individual with a significant online following.

In the first 18 months of his presidency, Yoon's government and political allies pursued defamation cases related to at least 11 different instances of coverage. Among the cases analyzed by VOA, criminal charges are among those being pursued.

That outpaces defamation-related complaints linked to previous South Korean governments.

Under Moon Jae-in, Yoon's liberal predecessor, four such cases were filed in five years. Eight cases were filed in four years under Park Geun-hye, a conservative removed from office over a corruption scandal. And under conservative Lee Myung-bak, VOA identified seven cases in five years.

Among the stories that have prompted complaints are reports that Yoon's wife directed foreign ministry officials to pursue a silver check mark for her X social media account, which denotes a government or official account, and allegations that Yoon moved the location of his presidential office following advice from a shaman.

Yoon's office derided both as fake news.

For many of the cases, investigations remain open, and at least six prosecutorial raids on journalists' homes and offices have taken place.

The situation creates a chilling effect on news coverage, according to press freedom advocates.

In a statement to VOA Wednesday, Yoon's office said that his administration "holds freedom of the press in the highest regard and exerts its utmost to protect it as it is the core value of a robust democracy."

"However, disinformation known as 'fake news' is the 'enemy of democracy,' which distorts people's decision-making based upon facts and is strictly and fairly dealt with in the United States and many other democratic countries," the statement said.

"Those complaints have been filed not to pressure the media but rather to respond to 'fake news' in accordance with laws and principles."

Systemic problems

South Korea's defamation laws treat libel as a criminal offense. Criminal defamation carries a prison sentence of up to seven years under South Korean law.

In nearly every other developed democracy, such cases are handled in civil courts.

And whereas in the U.S., those accused of defamation can be exonerated if they can prove the truth of their statements, under South Korean law, stating the truth can still be considered a crime if the factual content is found to not be in the "public interest."

For journalists and media outlets, the possibility of jail or fines is not the only threat. Even if the cases are unsuccessful, those accused of defamation can face months or years of costly legal fees and court appearances.

"It is quite troublesome," said Jung June-hee, a media professor at Hanyang University outside Seoul.

The privately run Press Arbitration Commission, or PAC, offers remediation for those involved in media-related defamation disputes, but it has not been used in most recent cases, said Jung.

The PAC process is "annoying and boring" for many politicians, whose ultimate goal is to discourage legitimate criticism, he added.

'Unprecedented' raids

Kim Dong-hoon, president of the Journalists Association of Korea, the country's largest organization of media workers, says pressure felt by the media during the Yoon era is "enormous."

A survey by the association released earlier this year found that 63% of South Korean journalists felt that press freedom had deteriorated under Yoon.

A main concern, according to Kim, is what he says are unprecedented search and seizure raids by prosecutorial investigative teams.

In September, prosecutors raided the homes and offices of journalists from Newstapa, an online newspaper that had published a story claiming that Yoon, in his former position as a prosecutor in 2011, had improperly failed to indict a figure involved in a real estate scandal.

Yoon denied the allegation and Newstapa apologized for editorial lapses.

But many observers, including Kim and Jung, still view the prosecution's raids as inappropriate — especially given its later raids on other outlets that had reported various aspects of the same story.

Since September, there have been six raids, targeting four separate media outlets, as the prosecution expands the investigation into coverage of the scandal. The latest occurred Wednesday, when investigators showed up at the home of Newstapa's CEO.

Messy environment

The lack of any significant public backlash against such raids can likely be explained by the low level of trust that South Koreans have in the media, said Shim Seog-tae, a journalism professor at Semyung University.

"This has become a social problem, even though it is also an issue of our legal system," said Shim, who in his previous role as legal correspondent for South Korean broadcaster SBS faced defamation investigations by the prosecution office.

South Korea is widely seen as having a free albeit messy and divisive media. 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 newspapers and broadcasters are explicitly liberal.

Media outlets on both sides often report bombastic accusations about political figures, sometimes with flimsy or anonymous sourcing, according to many critics.

But attempts to clean up the media environment are often seen as thinly disguised efforts to muzzle the press.

Before leaving office, Moon, Yoon's predecessor, unsuccessfully attempted to pass a so-called "fake news" law, which would have expanded the ability of courts to punish media outlets and journalists who publish information deemed false.

Yoon, too, has increasingly used the phrase "fake news," which he says is an existential threat to South Korea's democracy.

Taken together, the moves have helped create a chilling effect, according to Jung, the media professor.

"In the end, there is a tendency for journalists and those on the editorial side to hold back some of their criticism on issues related to the government," he said.