Seoul-President Moon Jae-in and his Democratic Party in South Korea have spent months vowing to stop what they call fake news in the media. But lawmakers had to postpone a vote on a new bill this week when they encountered a problem: no one can agree on exactly how to do it.
Moon Moon’s parliament, which controls a majority in parliament, introduced the bill in August, referring to it as the last major reform of his administration before his five-year term expires in May. The bill sparked outrage among domestic media and international rights groups who warned that it would discourage journalists from investigating corruption scandals and have a cooling effect on press freedom.
The spread of unverified news reports is not unique to South Korea. As more people eat news online, often accepting what they find on social media as true and reliable, the problem of misinformation has become global, political divisions have deepened and efforts to protect electoral integrity and fight epidemics have become more complex. But government efforts to stem the flow of misinformation have raised questions about freedom of speech, censorship and democratic backwardness.
Rarely a day goes by without a newspaper and social media account in South Korea with weak sources of corruption that reports that next year’s presidential candidates called it “fake news”. Fighting intensified after Moon’s chief aide Cho Cook resigned as justice minister in 2019 amid allegations of moral turpitude and financial wrongdoing by his family. The scandal shocked Mr Moon’s administration, and Mr Cho’s supporters and critics accused each other of spreading false information to influence public opinion.
Mr Moon Moon said last week that “the country needs stronger measures to combat the fake news and false reporting that has done so much harm to the state and individuals.” He began to distance himself from the bill after concerns were raised at home and abroad.
The South Korean journalists’ union, which is generally sympathetic to Moon Moon’s liberal government, has criticized the bill. The main conservative opposition party, the People’s Power Party, called it an “authoritarian” attempt by Mr Moon’s government to block friendly media.
Domestic media and international rights groups have also spoken out against it, warning that the bill’s vague definition of “false reporting”, “harm” and malicious “intent” would lead to self-censorship among journalists and limit unpopular and minority opinion.
Moon Moon’s team has pushed a slate of recent bills aimed at printing misinformation, including false descriptions of sensitive historical issues. Some bills have already become law.
The bill, which targets print, online and broadcast news media, was postponed this week. It proposes an amendment to South Korea’s Press Arbitration Act that would allow local courts to impose punitive damages on media outlets that publish false news that is “intentionally or through gross negligence” or violates personal rights, damages property or inflicts emotional pain.
The bill claimed punitive damages up to five times the actual damages due to false news reporting. Mr Moon’s team hoped that the hefty fines would force the media to take the veracity process more seriously.
“Unequal sanctions, such as heavy fines, could have a significant cooling effect on freedom of expression in South Korea, which is already restricted by criminal defamation laws that should be repealed,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
Speaking to reporters last week, Irene Khan, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression and expression, expressed concern that the amendment had vaguely defined “fake news” and that perpetrators would face “dissenting” punishments.
On Tuesday night, Mr Moon’s team acknowledged that passing the bill as it was was too risky. Lawmakers agreed to close the bill and allow opposition parties to continue negotiations until the end of the year.
Even before the new bill was introduced, victims of false news reports in South Korea were able to seek redress, including correction and compensation. They can also file defamation suits against news agencies, which is a criminal offense in the country. Proponents of the new bill say fines in South Korea were too small.
Between 2009 and 2018, 2,220 civil lawsuits were filed seeking compensation for false news. According to the country’s Press Arbitration Commission, less than 40 percent of them have had financial settlements, averaging 16,600. About half of the victims who won the settlement were paid 4,260 or less.
Last year, Media Today, in an online news publication survey, found that four-fifths of a thousand respondents supported the imposition of punitive damages against media outlets for publishing false information.
News agencies have complained that the new bill would allow the court to take into account a company’s revenue when paying compensation, meaning that larger and more influential mainstream broadcasters and resource-rich newspapers doing investigative work would probably suffer the most serious losses.
Moon Moon’s management camp has been in close contact with South Korea’s largest newspaper for some time. The magazines, which are all conservative, Mr. Moon has criticized the policies and scandals surrounding the administration.
On Tuesday, the ruling party vowed that it would not leave serious punitive damages for disclosing false information.
“We can no longer pretend that irresponsible news reports bankrupt businesses and ruin people’s lives and reputation,” said Song Young-Gill, the group’s leader. He compared the bill to “press gagging” in “claiming the right to publish fake and manipulated news”.