SEOUL -- In a speech to journalists on Aug. 17, South Korean President Moon Jae-in described press freedom as a "pillar of democracy" and commended the country's media for "balancing freedom and responsibility on a foundation of truth."
Despite this lofty commendation, many in the country's media and public are questioning the Moon government's commitment to the principles of a free media. At a National Assembly plenary session expected in the coming week, Moon's ruling Democratic Party is set to push through a controversial act that the opposition and advocates say would curtail the media's ability to report.
The proposed change is an amendment to the Act on Press Arbitration that would drastically increase monetary penalties for journalists and media outlets found guilty of disseminating false information. The proposal targets so-called fake news that is spread deliberately, or is a gross mischaracterization of the truth. If found guilty, news outlets would be required to issue retractions and work to delete articles deemed incorrect from news aggregators.
The ruling party, which holds enough seats in the legislature to push through the bill without votes from the opposition, argues that the legislation is necessary to give people and institutions a mechanism to counter false or misleading reports that appear online and can harm their reputations. The bill's proponents have stressed that politicians and large corporations are not eligible to file claims under the terms of the bill.
International assessments of press freedom in South Korea have improved under Moon, compared to under his predecessor, Park Geun-hye, who was ousted from office as part of a sprawling corruption scandal. South Korea ranked 42 out of 180 countries on the latest World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders, an improvement from 70 in 2016, Park's last year in office.
Poll data indicate a low level of trust in the media by the South Korean public. Eighty-nine percent of those surveyed for one study said "fake news" was a serious problem. That same study showed 22% of respondents saying their go-to source of information is YouTube.
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 bankrupt South Korea while turning the country over to North Korean control.
The ruling party has used legal channels to retaliate against what it sees as unfair criticism, including filing charges against an academic who wrote a column calling on voters to cast their ballots against the Democrats in last year's legislative elections.
A narrow majority of the public is in favor of this week's proposed legislation. The results of a poll released in early August by Realmeter showed 56% of respondents in support of the law and 35% opposed. Whether a pollee favored the media law amendment correlated closely with party support, as 83% of ruling party supporters backed the law, while 60% of respondents who align with the opposition party disapproved.
The main conservative opposition People Power Party are accusing the government of trying to create a legal means of intimidating critics into silence. Organizations that represent media workers have called on the government to scrap the bill, arguing that it will impede the journalists' ability to report without fear or censure.
Critics have also pointed to apparently auspicious timing: The Moon government has several months remaining in its single five-year term and South Koreans will go to polls to elect a new president in March next year, as lynchpin policy goals of the Moon administration, such as reaching a durable peace agreement with North Korea and redistributing wealth through transfer payments to low earners and small businesses, have not been fulfilled.
"The incumbent party feels that most media organizations are giving them unfair coverage and wants to suppress the media before the presidential election," Park Kyung-sin, a law professor at Korean University, told Nikkei Asia.
Analysts have also argued that the legislation does not clearly define the kind of reporting that would be actionable and liable to penalty as "fake news." "The law presents a serious threat to freedom of the press by using unclear concepts and terms. It's dangerous to make a law that restricts media freedoms through ambiguous provisions," said Rhee June-woong, a professor in the Seoul National University Department of Communication.
Freedom of speech is enshrined in South Korea's constitution, and legal analysts have therefore raised questions over the proposed bill's constitutionality as it could infringe on that right. Rhee told Nikkei he expects the legislation to ultimately be deemed unconstitutional.
To counter criticism of a political motive, the ruling party has stipulated that the bill would not take effect until April of next year, and as such would have no effect on the presidential vote. Nevertheless, if the legislation passes on Wednesday, the country's media is likely to experience a "chilling effect," said Kim Do-yeon, a professor at the Kookmin University School of Communication.
"Perhaps the Moon government wants to send a warning message to media outlets. If the government or ruling party decides some news report is wrong or problematic, the writer and media outlet can incur a big financial loss," Kim told Nikkei. "In the end, journalists are human beings, and if reporters and media outlets know that the law can be used against them, aren't they likely to shy away?"