People watch a television screen broadcasting live footage of a talk show of South Korea's President Moon Jae-in (C), at a railway station in Seoul on November 19, 2019. - Photo: AFP / Jung Yeon-je

SEOUL – The head of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea does not beat about the bush.

“They don’t know shit!” was Song Young-gil’s reported response last week to overseas criticism of a revision to the Media Arbitration Law his party plans to ram through the National Assembly in coming days.

Song’s DPK is being buffeted by a storm of criticism from both domestic and overseas media organizations protesting the proposed revision, which was meant to pass the National Assembly last week but faces a series of delays.

On Monday, heads of national media organizations picketed the National Assembly, joining protests by the right-wing main opposition, the People’s Power Party, who have promised a filibuster to prevent voting on the revision.

At the time of writing, the DPK has expressed determination to press ahead. Given the party’s supermajority in the National Assembly, won in the general election of April 2020, the bill looks set to pass, either in the last August session or when a new session opens on September 1.

If, as widely expected, the bill does pass, it will be the latest blow to free expression in South Korea, for it is not only media that is under legal pressure.

Despite the country’s impressive reputation as a vibrant democracy, laws and practices have in recent years been used to silence academics and social media users.

And according to members of the DPK who spoke to foreign reporters on Friday, further legislation – aimed at YouTubers – is in the pipeline. YouTube has, in recent years, emerged as a key channel via which hard right-wing commentators lambast the Moon Jae-in administration.

Stormy mediascape

Though South Korea is already home to powerful defamation laws that allow for seven-year jail terms as well as fines, the proposed revision would increase five-fold the penalties on media outlets that issue “intentional” or “grossly negligent” reports.  

South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Photo: AFP / Handout / The Blue House

The revision would also take into consideration the “sales and social influence” of offending media when it comes to awarding damages. 

Corrections, to be published in media, would be mandated to be at last half the length of the offending passage. And online media would be required to red-flag any article that receives complaints – even prior to the outcome of related investigations.

The DPK is – perhaps understandably – irked by the state of the national media.

The country’s three major newspapers, the Chosun, Joongang and Dong-A dailies – popularly known as the “ChoJoongDong” – are all right wing, and their widespread influence is a long-term bane of the left. The late leftist President Roh Moo-hyun, the mentor of current President Moon, was particularly resentful of their power.

Broadcast news is less problematic for whoever occupies the presidential Blue House, as the heads of two of the three major broadcasters – which are publicly owned – are appointed by the sitting government.

However, in the multidimensional expansion of the current media space, the three major papers are now broad media groups that also run cable TV channels as well as magazines.

DPK lawmakers, speaking to foreign reporters on Friday, repeatedly referenced the Chosun, the best-selling conservative paper. They particularly expressed anger about reports on a highly sensitive touchstone of the left, the 1980 Gwangju Uprising.

The uprising was a response by pro-democracy protesters in the city of Gwangju to a creeping coup d’etat being undertaken by then-general and later president Chun Do-hwan. Chun deployed airborne rangers to suppress the uprising, which they did with considerable brutality. Over 200 people were killed.

Former South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan leaves the court in Gwangju, South Korea, on November 30, 2020. Picture: AFP

The killings have left a deep scar on the national conscience. But some on the far right continue to insist – despite, to the best of Asia Times’ knowledge, all evidence to the contrary – that North Korea was involved in stoking the incident.

To further buttress their case, the DPK lawmakers cited the findings of polls that find low credibility for mainstream media in the country. They can also count on public support: According on another poll this month, some 56% of respondents said they support the law, while just 35% are opposed.

In 2020, South Korea was the 23rd most democratic country on earth according to The Economist’s Democracy Index, and Korean media is largely untrammeled. It leads Asia in Reporters Without Frontiers press freedom rankings, in 42nd place worldwide.

Against the backdrop of heavy-handed legislation in Hong Kong that alarmed global media in 2020 in what was formerly the regional news hub, South Korea has sought to lure international newsrooms in what it saw as competition with regional democratic rivals Taipei and Tokyo.

After well-staffed Asian news bureaus of leading US newspapers The New York Times and the Washington Post were established in Seoul, South Korean officials have been in chest-thumping mode, citing the local environment’s press freedom.

But DPK members warned that the legal amendment they are proposing would also apply to foreign media in the country.

Opposition mounts

Even by the incendiary standards of South Korea’s ever-contentious politics, opposition has been heated.

“The DP is running this country like a totalitarian state,” Lee Dal-gon, a PPP member told domestic media last week. “The PPP is seriously concerned that the DP will abuse this law in the lead-up to the election to break the media’s pen.”

Criminal libel laws were used to silence critics during the presidency of Park Guen-Hye. Photo: AFP

A presidential election is scheduled next March, and the DPK say that the revisions to the bill will not take effect until next April.

Even so, the DPK lawmakers on Friday warned that though damages in the bill cannot be claimed by high-level government officials and tycoons, that exemption only extends up to the retirements of those people – raising the possibility of retroactive lawsuits.

That could provide useful post-retirement ammunition for President Moon, who is constitutionally limited to a single term.

Media organizations both inside and outside Korea have expressed alarm.

“The proposed amendment could open the door to any arbitrary interpretation and possibly be instrumentalized to put pressure on the media,” said Reporters without Borders East Asia Bureau head, Cédric Alviani. 

“No matter the legitimacy of the fight against disinformation, legislators should never create new legal tools without ensuring they include sufficient guarantees, as court decisions can be very subjective on those sensitive issues.”

The NGO called the amendment, “a threat to journalism.”

Separately, a Seoul law firm, Yeomin, has allied with a civic group, the Transitional Justice Working Group, which targets Pyongyang for human rights violations, to submit a petition to the United Nations.

People watch a television screen showing a news report about North Korea’s decision not to participate in the Tokyo Olympics due to the Covid-19 pandemic, at a railway station in Seoul on April 6, 2021. Photo: AFP / Jung Yeon-je

Their petition alleges that the revision violates freedom of expression, freedom of association and the right to fair trial under articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Shin Hee-seok of the TJWG detailed a number of problems with the amendment. One is the requirement by media to signal complaints against an article even before a probe has been undertaken.

“The mandatory flagging of online articles by news providers at the mere request for correction of reports is a presumption of guilt,” he told Asia Times. “If someone reports negatively about Moon Jae-in or Samsung, and people object, the provider has to flag the content, and if you are an average reader, this will make you doubt the veracity of the article.”

It will also require extensive, and likely onerous, management of flagged articles by news providers.

The petitioners urged President Moon to veto the bill. Given that the DPK is Moon’s party, that looks highly unlikely.

One long-term avenue of challenge, which has already been raised by academics, is legal challenge to the amendments in the Constitutional Court.

A wider assault

It is not just mainstream media that faces growing freedom of expression restrictions.

Korea’s powerful libel laws and other mechanisms have been deployed against those who question the conventional wisdom on such sensitive issues as the Gwangju Uprising and the 1910-1945 Japanese colonial period.  

Newspapers in Seoul report the summit between former US president Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June 2018. Photo: AFP / Jung Yeon-je

In an ongoing court case Chun, the aging ex-president who ordered the Gwangju crackdown, has been sued by the family of a deceased, activist priest for questioning the latter’s credibility in his memoir (which has had its publication halted).

The precedent – that a dead persons’ descendants can sue for libel – has obviously worrisome implications for historians.

The current developments around the revision to the Media Arbitration Act are raising red flags even for some non-media professional, who allege political partisanship.

Given that the DPK is dominated by members of the generation who struggled against Seoul’s authoritarian governments of the 1970s and 80s, that is an irony, they say.

“I find it ironic that members of progressive parties, who suffered for years under the arbitrary application of the 1948 National Security Act (which outlawed supposedly pro-communist speech), is now creating similar legislation to punish their opponents,” said Joseph Yi, a founding member of the East Asia chapter of the Heterodox Academy and a South Korea-based educator since 2011.

“South Korea is moving backwards as a free, open, pluralist society and this should concern supporters of liberty everywhere.”

The Heretodox Academy is a non-profit, global advocacy group of academics working to promote diversity of viewpoints on college campuses.

A man watches a television screen showing news footage of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attending the 8th congress of the ruling Workers’ Party held in Pyongyang, at a railway station in Seoul on January 6, 2021. Photo: AFP / Jung Yeon-je

“The abuses of South Korea’s criminal libel law by opposed political factions gives a foretaste of how this amendment could be used to suppress free speech across the ideological spectrum,” said Shaun O’Dwyer, a political theorist at Kyushu University and a colleague of Yi in the Heterodox Academy.

“During Park Guen-hye’s presidency this law was used to intimidate and silence her media critics, yet it has also been used by progressive political groups to prosecute academics who dissent from both the academic and nationalist consensus on the ‘comfort women,’ such as Park Yu-ha or Lew Seok-choon,” O’Dwyer said.

Conservative president Park Geun-hye, after being impeached, was jailed for corruption and abuse of power. The two South Korean academics cited fell into hot water over their stances on “comfort women,” which dispute the national narrative that all were “sex slaves.”

In cases that have caused some to cry foul on grounds of the breach of academic freedom, Park was sued for libel, fined $9,000 and her book on the subject was heavily redacted. Separately, Lew lost his job just before his retirement, and faces defamation lawsuits.

Rising obstacles on free expression are even extending into the entertainment space.

The deaths by suicide of a number of K-pop stars and celebrities in recent years have been linked to online abuse. In response, a cyber investigative arm of the National Police Agency has been activated to track down hate online.

In this heated atmosphere, even the biggest company in K-pop is flexing its muscles.

K-pop groups like BTS can’t be overly criticized online. Photo: Jung Yeon-je/AFP

“BTS’ management company Hybe [formerly, Big Hit] has said that any ‘ill-intentioned criticism’ will be met with legal ramifications,” noted David Tizzard, a columnist and professor of Korean Studies at Seoul Women’s University. “So, if you criticize BTS, you could be sued.”

Yet Tizzard suggests that the current trend is not restricted to Korea.

“I don’t think these trends should be seen in a vacuum: The idea of controlling and regulating free speech online is a broader political issue,” he told Asia Times.

“There is a broad social trend that words are violence, and a lot of these regulations reflect changing attitudes. There is a move toward policing language.”