In its latest press freedom rankings, Reporters Without Borders described South Korean President Moon Jae-in as “a breath of fresh air” after a decade of conservative rule that saw his predecessors, centre-right leaders Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak, draw fire for launching criminal defamation suits against critics and stacking broadcast networks with political allies.
But Moon, a former human rights lawyer, now faces questions about his own commitment to press freedom as his centre-left Democratic Party pushes controversial legislation to combat so-called fake news.
Under the proposals, media outlets would not only be required to issue corrections for the “deliberate” or “grossly negligent” dissemination of false information – they would be liable for punitive damages, with compensation rates increasing five-fold under the country’s press arbitration system.
The Democratic Party, which commands a majority in the 300-seat National Assembly, plans to pass the reforms before the end of the month. Moon’s allies have denied any intention to suppress criticism of the government, with party chairman Song Young-gil last month arguing “opposition parties or any ordinary person can be a victim”.
Many of the country’s biggest media organisations and lobby groups, including the Journalists Association of Korea and the National Union of Media Workers, have reacted to the proposed law with alarm, pointing to the difficulties and dangers of trying to define fake news.
“The punitive damages system being pushed by the ruling party is bad law and will undermine Korea’s freedom of the press,” said Kim Dong-hoon, president of the Journalists Association of Korea. “It is often not possible to know what is fake information. From the perspective of the media, interpretations of truth can vary depending on a person’s biases.”
The presidential Blue House did not respond to requests for comment on the new legislation.
South Korea, which transitioned from military rule to democracy in the late 1980s, has in recent years been held up as a rare example of improving press freedom in Asia, a region where journalists face growing constraints on their work and risks to their safety.
The country was ranked 42nd in Reporters Without Borders’ 2021 World Press Freedom Index, which was released in April – the highest ranking in Asia for a third straight year, and up from 70th in 2016.
In the past year, The New York Times and The Washington Post have established their regional hubs in Seoul, the former relocating staff out of Hong Kong in response to the city’s draconian national security law. In Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Hong Kong, government efforts to tackle fake news have been criticised by press freedom advocates and opposition figures as a cover to suppress dissenting voices.
Despite South Korea’s growing reputation as a rare bright spot for liberal values, Moon has faced accusations of trying to stifle criticism since soon after taking office in 2017. As during past administrations, prosecutors have targeted critics accused of spreading rumours and misinformation about Moon and the government, at times using criminal defamation laws that carry the threat of up to seven years in prison.
Last year, Moon signed into law a ban on activists flying propaganda leaflets into North Korea, a controversial practice that complicated the president’s rapprochement efforts with the unpredictable regime of Kim Jong-un.
In July, a Seoul court sentenced a political commentator to eight months in jail for defamation after insinuating one of Moon’s allies interfered in the corruption trial of predecessor Park Geun-hye, who is serving a 20-year prison term.
Many conservatives see the push to combat fake news as just the latest ploy by the government to control the narrative. In an editorial earlier this year, the conservative JoongAng newspaper described claims the law would help restore social stability and trust as reminiscent of the justifications for censorship offered by authoritarian regimes.
“What is fake news? The definition of fake news is often justified by the current ruling power,” said Kim Dong-yon, a former journalist with the Chosun Monthly news magazine, who suggested the new system would be abused to “oppress minor and opposition voices in South Korea”.
Others argue rampant misinformation – ranging from McCarthyist innuendo about the president to Covid-19 conspiracy theories – cries out for legal reform, especially in a country that is both hyper-connected and increasingly divided along partisan, age and gender lines.
“When lies predominate the public sphere, democracy does not survive,” said Shin Kwang-yeong, a sociology professor at Chung-Ang University in Seoul. “Fake news fabricated by extreme rightists or leftists puts democracy in peril.”
Shin said South Korea’s current press arbitration system was slow and ineffective, arguing the country should learn from countries such as Germany that had passed tough laws to remove hate speech online.
“The current government should work to keep democracy from extreme populist agitation based on fake news,” he said.
Kim Doo-il, an independent journalist and commentator, said reform was needed as conservative media often produced misleading or distorted reports about the government and liberal figures.
“People are better informed than ever to discern fake and distorted news from legitimate sources,” he said. “The members of the ruling party have come up with this bill based on the wishes of the general public.”
Kim Dong-hoon, the president of the Journalists Association of Korea, acknowledged that misinformation was a problem, but questioned the idea that the solution would be found in more regulation.
“In the case of harm from fake news and falsehoods, there is no country with such a good system as Korea for victims. There is a media arbitration committee, and both civil damages and criminal punishment are possible,” he said.
“We believe the problem of falling trust in the press is not just a question for journalists, but that media consumers also have a shared responsibility.”
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.