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South Korea votes on “fake news” law, which the media rejects

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SEOUL – In a speech to journalists on August 17, South Korean President Moon Jae-in described freedom of the press as a “pillar of democracy” and praised the country’s media for “balancing freedom and responsibility based on the truth”.

Despite this high commendation, many in the country’s media and public are questioning the Moon government’s commitment to the principles of free media. At a plenary session of the National Assembly expected next week, Moon’s ruling Democratic Party will impose a controversial act that opposition and supporters say would limit the media’s ability to report.

The proposed change is an amendment to the Press Arbitration Act that would dramatically increase fines for journalists and media found guilty of disseminating false information. The proposal targets so-called fake news, which is intentionally distributed or grossly misrepresents the truth. If found guilty, news outlets would have to issue revocations and work to remove articles that are deemed incorrect from news aggregators.

The ruling party, which has enough seats in the legislature to pass the bill without opposition votes, argues that the legislation is necessary to provide a mechanism for people and institutions to counter false or misleading reports that appear online and damage their reputation. Proponents of the bill have emphasized that politicians and large corporations are not allowed to file claims under the terms of the bill.

The international assessment of press freedom in South Korea has improved under Moon compared to his predecessor Park Geun-hye, who was removed from office in the wake of a widespread corruption scandal. South Korea ranks 42nd out of 180 countries on Reporters Without Borders’ latest World Press Freedom Index, an improvement from 70 in 2016, Park’s final year in office.

Survey data show a low level of trust in the South Korean public in the media. Eighty-nine percent of those surveyed said that “fake news” was a serious problem. The same study found that 22% of respondents named YouTube as a source of information.

Since Moon took office in 2017, an ecosystem of right-wing critics has flourished on YouTube, with fiery commentators building large audiences while accusing Moon and his party of being communists secretly working to ruin South Korea while they are the country passed North Korean control.

The ruling party has used legal channels to take revenge on what it sees as unfair criticism, including charges against an academic who authored a column calling on voters to vote against the Democrats in last year’s general election .

A slim majority of the population supports this week’s legislative proposal. The results of a survey published by Realmeter at the beginning of August showed that 56% of respondents are in favor of the law and 35% are against it. Whether a respondent was in favor of the media law change correlated closely with the party’s support, as 83% of the ruling party’s supporters supported the law while 60% of those who joined the opposition party opposed it.

The largest conservative opposition party, the People Power Party, has accused the government of trying to create a legal means of silencing critics. Organizations representing media professionals have urged the government to abolish the law as it would prevent journalists from reporting without fear or reprimand.

Critics have also pointed to a seemingly propitious time: the Moon government has several months left in its only five-year term and the South Koreans will vote in March next year to elect a new president as the Moon’s political goals Administration, such as a lasting peace agreement with North Korea and the redistribution of wealth through transfer payments to low wage earners and small businesses, have not been met.

“The incumbent party believes that most of the media organizations are reporting unfairly on them and want to suppress the media ahead of the presidential election,” Korean University professor Park Kyung-sin told Nikkei Asia.

Analysts have also argued that the legislation does not clearly define the type of reporting that would be indictable and punishable as “fake news”. “The law poses a serious threat to press freedom through the use of unclear concepts and terms. It is dangerous to pass a law that restricts media freedom through ambiguous provisions,” said Rhee June-woong, professor in the Seoul National’s Department of Communication University.

Freedom of expression is enshrined in the South Korean constitution, and legal experts have therefore raised questions about the constitutionality of the bill as it could violate that right. Rhee told Nikkei he expected the law to ultimately be found unconstitutional.

In order to counteract the criticism of a political motive, the ruling party has determined that the draft law will not come into force until April next year and thus have no impact on the presidential election. If the law is passed on Wednesday, however, the country’s media should experience a “chilling effect,” said Kim Do-yeon, a professor at the Kookmin University School of Communication.

“Perhaps the Moon government would like to send a warning to the media. If the government or ruling party decides that a news report is incorrect or problematic, the writer and the media can suffer a huge financial loss, “Kim told Nikkei. “At the end of the day, journalists are people, and when reporters and the media know that the law can be used against them, won’t they shy away?”

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