By: Shim Jae Hoon

Contrary to its image in recent years as a steadily liberalizing polity, South Korea’s governing party is sliding backward in what many critics deride as deja vu. The Democratic Party, as President Moon Jae-in stands in the background with arms folded, is pushing through the single-chamber National Assembly a law bill penalizing what it calls “fake news, news with malicious intent, news in the nature of taking reprisals, news that quote from or repeat such fake news.”

It is an astonishing piece of legislation given how far the country has come since the grim years of military rule under which all press freedom had been controlled, with scores of journalists fired or detained and quite a few media outlets completely shut down under the military junta rule. Imprecise and vague as to what fake news is, or how it should be defined, the bill stands to undermine press freedom if legislated.

All domestic media organizations including the Korean Newspaper Publishers Association and Korean Journalist Association have demanded that it be withdrawn, saying it could be misused for political purposes. International organizations such as UN High Commissioner’s Office for Human Rights and Human Rights Watch have added their weight, saying the government should withdraw it, on the ground they can curtail freedom of expression.

No less daunting than articles covering “fake news” is the scale of compensation to be awarded to people claiming to have suffered damage. Media outlets or workers found guilty of defamation or libel under fake news provisions can demand significant financial payouts, as much as up to five times the claimant’s financial worth. Technically, according to some lawyers, this could leave aggrieved businessman or high-income entertainment figures demanding compensations up to five times their annual earnings.

Facing outraged media reactions, the party has backed down, saying this could be watered down to three times a claimant’s worth.

These toxic articles make it clear what the bill’s promoters are really seeking to achieve. It could be boon for politicians who want to avoid public scrutiny. As local media industry thrives under a new air of freedom and technology innovations, all sorts of media outlets have appeared — internet news agencies, one-man broadcasting outfits, YouTube channel reporters, personal blogs, etc. Hundreds of people are now registered with the National Assembly to cover its proceedings and news of politicians and their goings about, making it harder than ever to escape public scrutiny. (Or conversely, making it easier for them to manipulate some of the media.)

But more important is the timing of this legislation: it coincides with the opening of campaign for the next presidential election that falls in March 2022. President Moon is constitutionally barred from running for a second term, but his party stands widely criticized for many policy failures under his leftwing populist leadership. In his term in office, wages have gone up by a third, millions are out of a job, average housing prices have doubled with the government seeking to control and regulate the real estate market. All this contributed to losing the last Seoul mayoral election.

Attempts by Moon’s party to deal with public criticisms with the hammer of law has prompted some commentators to say that onetime student pro-democracy activists who now run the legislative and executive branches are imitating their old adversaries in the military government. To them, it’s a case of old habits dying hard.

Another irony is the bill’s emphasis on financial compensation that recalls the infamous press law used by Singapore’s late prime minister Lee Kwan Yew against foreign media criticizing his leadership. “The best way to deal with disagreeable media is to hit at its pocket where it hurts most,” Lee reportedly said. True to his words, Lee had local circulations of international publications such as the Far Eastern Economic Review, Time and Asian Wall Street Journal drastically cut for offending articles. Such draconian reprisals, though, did not stop independent reporting by these publications.

Evidently concerned by overseas criticisms, the government has let it be known that the law won’t affect foreign correspondents based in Seoul. Not so, according to its nationalist firebrand chairman Song Young-gil, who quickly turned down any exception. It will apply to all media people wherever they come from – foreign or domestic, he declared. That can open doors to more troubles ahead.

Shim Jae Hoon is a former Far Eastern Economic Review correspondent and a contributor to Asia Sentinel

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