2021-10-01 07:33:34 ‘Fake News’ Bill in South Korea Gets Shelved Amid Outcry

‘Fake News’ Bill in South Korea Gets Shelved Amid Outcry

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his Democratic Party have spent months vowing to combat what they call fake news in the media. However, lawmakers were forced to postpone a vote on a new bill this week due to a stumbling block: no one could agree on how to do it.

Mr. Moon’s party, which has a majority in Parliament, introduced the bill in August, touting it as one of the administration’s final major reforms before his five-year term expires in May. The bill sparked a backlash from domestic media outlets and international human rights organizations, who warned that it would discourage journalists from investigating corruption allegations and would have a chilling effect on press freedoms.

The spread of unverified news reports is not limited to South Korea. As more people consume news online, often believing what they find on social media to be true and reliable, the problem of misinformation has spread across the globe, widening political divides and complicating efforts to preserve election integrity and combat the pandemic. However, government efforts to halt the spread of misinformation have raised concerns about free speech, censorship, and democratic backsliding.

There isn’t a day that goes by in South Korea that doesn’t include poorly sourced reports of corruption, which candidates in next year’s presidential election have labeled as “fake news.” The conflict heated up after Cho Kuk, Mr. Moon’s key ally, resigned as justice minister in 2019 amid allegations of ethical lapses and financial wrongdoing by his family. The scandal rocked Mr. Moon’s administration, and supporters and detractors of Mr. Cho exchanged heated accusations of spreading false information to sway public opinion.

Last week, Mr. Moon stated that the country needed a stronger measure to combat “fake news and false reporting that has caused much harm to the state and individuals.” After concerns were raised both at home and abroad, he began to distance himself from the bill.

South Korean journalist unions, which are usually supportive of Mr. Moon’s liberal government, have criticized the bill. The People Power Party, Mr. Moon’s main conservative opposition, called it a “dictatorial” attempt by Mr. Moon’s government to silence unfriendly media.

Domestic media and international human rights organizations have also spoken out against it, warning that the bill’s ambiguous definitions of “untrue reports,” “harm,” and malicious “intent” would lead to self-censorship among journalists and limit the publication of unpopular and minority viewpoints.

Mr. Moon’s party has recently introduced a slew of bills aimed at combating misinformation, including false narratives about sensitive historical topics. Some of the legislation has already become law.

The bill, which was postponed this week, was aimed at print, online, and broadcast news outlets. It proposed a change to South Korea’s Press Arbitration Act that would allow local courts to levy punitive damages on media outlets that publish false news “intentionally or through grave negligence,” or that violates personal rights, causes property damage, or causes psychological distress.

Punitive damages of up to five times the actual loss caused by the false news report were proposed in the bill. Mr. Moon’s party hoped that the severe financial penalties would compel media outlets to take fact-checking more seriously.

“Disproportionate sanctions, such as heavy fines, can have a significant chilling effect on freedom of expression in South Korea, which is already hampered by criminal defamation laws that should be repealed,” Human Rights Watch stated in a statement.

Irene Khan, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of expression and opinion, expressed concerns to journalists last week that the amendment vaguely defined “fake news” and that offenders would face a “disproportionate” penalty.

Mr. Moon’s party admitted on Tuesday night that the bill was too risky to pass as it was. Legislators agreed to put the bill on hold and allow the opposing parties to continue negotiating until the end of the year.

Victims of false news reports in South Korea could seek redress, including corrections and compensation, even before the new bill was introduced. They could also sue news outlets for defamation, which is a crime in the country. Financial penalties in South Korea, according to supporters of the new bill, were too light.

Between 2009 and 2018, 2,220 civil lawsuits seeking compensation for false news were filed. According to data from the country’s Press Arbitration Commission, less than 40% of them resulted in financial settlements, which averaged $16,600. Almost half of the victims who received settlements received $4,260 or less.

Four-fifths of 1,000 respondents in a survey conducted last year by Media Today, an online news publication, supported imposing punitive damages against media outlets for publishing misinformation.

News organizations have expressed concern that the new bill will allow courts to consider an organization’s revenue when awarding damages, implying that larger and more influential mainstream broadcasters and newspapers with the resources to conduct investigative reporting will face the most severe penalties.

Mr. Moon’s administration has had a fractious relationship with South Korea’s largest newspapers for some time. The newspapers, all of which are conservative, have been harshly critical of Mr. Moon’s policies and scandals.

On Tuesday, the ruling party vowed that it would not back down from pursuing severe punitive damages for misinformation.

“We can no longer pretend that nothing is wrong when irresponsible news reporting drives businesses to bankruptcy and ruins people’s lives and reputations,” Song Young-gil, the party’s leader, said in August. He claimed that comparing the bill to “press gagging” amounted to “demanding the right to publish fake and manipulated news.”

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'Fake News' Bill in South Korea Gets Shelved Amid Outcry