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South Korea’s ruling party withdraws after the backlash against the “fake news” law


South Korea’s ruling party has withdrawn from a controversial law imposing tougher penalties for posting false information after critics at home and abroad called it an attempt to stifle free press and critical reporting.

Instead of voting on the proposed “fake news” bill this week, President Moon Jae-in’s liberal Democratic Party agreed late Wednesday to set up a joint panel with opposition lawmakers to examine options to amend existing laws.

The review will also look into how to deal with the spread of false information on social media such as Facebook and YouTube, which are covered by a separate law.

South Korea is home to a thriving news industry that ranks fairly high on the freedom of the media lists, but in recent years it has struggled with misinformation and cyberbullying.

The proposed amendment to the Act on Press Arbitration and Remedies would allow courts to order five times higher claims for damages if they “deliberately or grossly negligently” produced false or fabricated reports that violate a plaintiff’s rights, cause property damage or cause emotional distress.

The bill also requires media companies, including Internet news service providers, to issue corrections to erroneous reports.

Moon’s Democrats said the bill should ensure the media take more responsibility for the damage caused by false reports, and improve news quality and public confidence.

Opposition politicians, human rights activists, and both conservative and liberal media organizations, however, said the changes would protect those in power from legitimate scrutiny and harm democracy.

Senior Democrat Yun Ho-jung said the party has not given up its call for punitive damages but will seek a range of views, including from media and citizen groups and experts.

An alliance of journalists and news producers’ associations welcomed the decision, but said the panel should include reporters, academics, activists and lawyers in order to build better consensus.

Governments and companies around the world are increasingly fighting the spread of false information on the Internet and its effects, but activists fear that harsh legal sanctions could be used to silence the opposition.

A coalition of human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, has run a global campaign against the change, sending letters to the South Korean National Assembly and Moon expressing concerns about media freedom.

“The ruling party seems to have accepted the concerns of the international community. It’s a relief, ”said Ethan Hee-seok Shin, a legal analyst with the Seoul-based Transitional Justice Working Group, which is part of the coalition.

Moon’s office did not make an immediate comment, but said last week that reviews were needed to reflect various concerns about the bill.

Irene Khan, a UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, highlighted the vague language and disproportionate punishment of the current bill, which she believes could undermine not only media freedom but also national prestige.

“It will send a negative message to others around the world who see Korea as a role model,” Khan said in a virtual briefing last week.

Mary Lawlor, UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders, also warned in a video message published on Tuesday of a “deterrent effect” on advocacy groups.

Public opinion is divided. A poll by WinGKorea Consulting published in August found that around 46% of respondents supported the bill, while nearly 42% said it would suppress freedom of the press.

South Korea ranks 42nd out of 180 countries in this year’s Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index.

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