Korean president’s battle against ‘fake news’ alarms critics | ET REALITY


President Yoon Suk Yeol’s allies are attacking what they see as an existential threat to South Korea and they are beating around the bush. The leader of Mr. Yoon’s party has called for the death penalty in a “high treason” case. The Culture Ministry has vowed to root out what it called an “organized and dirty” conspiracy to undermine the country’s democracy.

In this case, the accused is not a foreign spy, but a Korean media outlet that has published articles critical of Mr. Yoon and his government.

The president, a former prosecutor, is turning to lawsuits, state regulators and criminal investigations to crack down on speech he calls disinformation, efforts that have largely been directed at news organizations. Since Yoon was elected last year, police and prosecutors have repeatedly raided the homes and newsrooms of journalists whom his office has accused of spreading “fake news.”

Some South Koreans accuse Yoon of reusing the expression as justification for defamation lawsuits and to mobilize prosecutors and regulators to threaten sanctions and criminal investigations. Many are exasperated that her leader has adopted the phrase, a rallying cry for strongmen around the world that is also further dividing an increasingly polarized electorate in her country.

South Koreans are proud of the vibrant democracy and press freedom they gained after decades of military dictatorship and, more recently, the growing influence of their country’s soft power.

Mr. Yoon may be best known abroad for aligning his country more closely with the United States and for his performance of “American Pie” in the White House. He advocates for “freedom” in his speeches, but his 18-month presidency has been characterized by a near-constant clash with the opposition and fears of censorship and democratic backsliding.

All leaders in the democratic world have struggled to find ways to counter the corrosive effects of online disinformation. But Yoon’s critics, including the liberal opposition and journalists’ associations, accuse him of suppressing speech in the name of fighting misinformation. In a survey this year, the majority of local journalists said They felt that press freedom was receding under Mr. Yoon.

“It’s dangerous to let the government decide what fake news is,” said Pae Jung Kun, a journalism professor at Sookmyung Women’s University in Seoul. “It undermines the media’s ability to hold the government accountable.”

Yoon’s crackdown intensified in September, when his office singled out an independent news organization for a report it published last year.

Prosecutors ransacked the homes and offices of two Newstapa journalists, who published the article. Journalists from other media outlets were also attacked and had their mobile phones and files confiscated to gather criminal defamation evidence. Authorities have rarely taken such measures since South Korea democratized in the 1990s, although that has changed under Yoon. Government regulators fined three cable television channels that had picked up the Newstapa article, also accusing them of spreading “fake news.”

Article which earned Newstapa the ire of Mr. Yoon was published three days before his election, in March 2022. It described an accusation that Mr. Yoon, as prosecutor in 2011, had decided not to charge Cho Woo-hyung, a man. involved in a banking and real estate scandal, due to the lobbying of a prosecutor turned lawyer. Mr. Yoon denied the claim during the presidential debates and still does.

Other news organizations had previously reported on the controversy. But Newstapa acquired an audio file of a conversation between one of its independent investigators and Kim Man-bae, a former journalist and key figure in the scandal, who claimed he had introduced Cho to the lawyer, who then used his influence. . with Mr. Yoon to have the case against Mr. Cho dismissed. Newstapa said the freelancer was not assigned when the conversation took place in 2021 and provided the audio just days before the vote.

After Yoon was elected, the Newstapa article was largely forgotten, until prosecutors raided the freelancer’s home in September, accusing him of accepting $122,000 in bribes from Kim. Both the freelancer and Mr. Kim denied bribery, and Newstapa said it was not aware of any financial transactions between the two when he published the article. But he stood by the decision to report the contents of the audio file and accused the president of trying to silence a media that refused to toe his line.

Mr. Yoon’s Justice Minister demanded accountability and called for a thorough investigation. The Korean Communications Standards Commission, which normally blocks websites that feature gambling, pornography or North Korean propaganda, said it intended to examine all online media to eliminate “fake news” after its new president , appointed by Yoon, will call them “a clear and present danger.”

“If we do not stop the spread of fake news,” Yoon told his staff in September, “it will threaten free democracy and the market economy built on it.”

Newstapa was founded in 2012 by journalists unhappy with what they considered collusion between politics, business and the media. South Korea’s democracy seems cheerful, but its news organizations have long suffered. low public trust, as people saw them as kowtowing to corporate interests and pandering to partisan bias. Newstapa relies on donations to support its 50-person staff and has published investigative reports critical of South Korea’s elites, including big business and prosecutors.

“We have been a thorn in the eye of Yoon and the prosecutors,” said Sim In-bo, content director of Newstapa.​

Analysts said the outlet had exposed itself to criticism by making a baseless accusation so close to a hotly contested election. (Yoon won by the narrowest margin of any free presidential election in South Korea.) But they also described the government’s response as exaggerated.

“President Yoon, a lifelong prosecutor with little experience in politics, has developed a narrow and harsh political outlook,” said Kang Won-taek, a political science professor at Seoul National University. “He still acts as a prosecutor. “What should be resolved through the political process is brought to law.”

Mr. Yoon started out as a media-friendly president. He was the first South Korean leader to allow journalists to ask questions when he came to work in the morning. But that opening did not last long.

After South Korean broadcaster MBC published what it called a hot microphone clip Although the president used an insult to describe American lawmakers last year, he took a more hostile stance. Two months later, the next time Mr. Yoon traveled abroad, banned MBC reporters from his presidential plane. The organization’s “fake news” report, he said, was a “malicious” attempt to create a rift in the alliance with Washington.

He also stopped answering questions in the morning.

In South Korea, conservatives and their rivals have been accused of cracking down on critical news when they are in power. When the liberal opposition was in power, it also called fake news “a public enemy” and tried to introduce legislation that would allow for heavy financial sanctions. The attempt failed after conservatives pushed back, calling it a “dictatorial” effort to muzzle the hostile media.

Under Mr. Yoon’s command, the two sides exchanged positions. The difference is that the Conservative government, instead of trying to introduce a new law, is resorting to an old weapon.

“The government and public figures used defamation and slander laws, which broadly define and criminalize defamation, to restrict public discussion and harass, intimidate, or censor private and media expression,” the US State Department said. in its annual report. human rights report on South Korea in March.

Defamation convictions in South Korea, which are based on whether what was said was “in the public interest” rather than its truth, can lead to fines or up to seven years in prison.

Mr. Yoon’s office said it had to take legal action to prevent misinformation from spreading and being accepted as fact. But the government’s definition of fake news has raised questions about how to draw lines between disinformation and free speech.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs sued MBC after it refused to retract its hot mic report. Since Mr. Yoon took office, police have repeatedly raided the offices and homes of reporters and producers in the tamsa, a YouTube channel that reported on corruption allegations involving Mr. Yoon, his wife, his mother-in-law (who is in prison for forgery), and his justice minister. And in September, prosecutors raided the office of JTBC, a cable channel that reported on the same allegation against Yoon as Newstapa. Authorities have searched the homes or offices of four other journalists who reported similar claims before the election.

South Koreans, distrustful of traditional media, have increasingly migrated to YouTube and other online sources for news. These platforms exerted enormous influence during the last presidential election and spread openly partisan opinions.

“The so-called new media are more aggressive in collecting and distributing data on key issues of the day than traditional media,” said Ahn Soo-chan, a journalism professor at Semyung University. “And political power becomes more aggressive in trying to control them.”

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