Korean media regulator’s “one strike” policy for “fake news” denounced as censorship

Posted on : 2023-09-20 16:57 KST Modified on : 2023-09-20 16:57 KST
The Korea Communications Commission’s “fake news eradication plan” has come under fire for what critics say are direct violations of the Constitution
Korea Communications Commission Chairperson Lee Dong-kwan takes a phone call while taking part in a People Power Party-organized public hearing on introducing a bill to “eradicate fake news” on Sept. 19. (Yonhap)
Korea Communications Commission Chairperson Lee Dong-kwan takes a phone call while taking part in a People Power Party-organized public hearing on introducing a bill to “eradicate fake news” on Sept. 19. (Yonhap)

On Monday, the Korea Communications Commission (KCC) announced its “fake news eradication plan,” prompting criticism that the government is attempting to introduce a de facto censorship system that allows it to arbitrarily interfere with the press. In particular, observers are pointing out that the proposed “one strike” rule directly violates the fundamental purpose of the Constitution as well as its specific provisions.

According to the Hankyoreh’s reportage as of Tuesday, media experts viewed the KCC’s plan to set up the so-called “one-stop fast-track” system as the government’s way to pave the way to make arbitrary judgments about what counts as fake news. With the adoption of the one-stop fast-track system, a “fake news reporting center” would be established within the Korea Communications Standards Commission (KCSC), and an expedited review system would be activated so that reports could be reviewed and processed in quick succession regardless of the order in which they were received.

The KCC additionally shared that “the definition of and criteria for fake news will be laid out later on through discussions with the National Assembly.”

Regarding this, the People’s Coalition for Media Reform (PCMR) released a statement on Monday in which it argued that “preemptively limiting the basic rights of the public without even determining the object of and criteria for regulation runs counter to the principles of clarity and proportionality stipulated by the Constitution.”

The “one strike” rule, which the KCC announced plans to legislate, has prompted the most intense backlash. The KCC had previously shared on Sept. 6 that it would institute the one strike rule together with an integrated review system, which seems to indicate that the commission intends to lead efforts to bring together review boards like the KCSC and the Press Arbitration Commission to allow them to close down or suspend media companies.

Referencing Shin Hak-lim’s interview of Kim Ma-bae for Newstapa, which has served as the pretext for these recent developments, People Power Party lawmaker Chang Je-won, who chairs the Science, ICT, Broadcasting and Communications Committee at the National Assembly, suggested the news outlet “should be considered for closure,” to which KCC chair Lee Dong-kwan responded, “That is precisely the final stage of the one strike rule” — lending credence to the above interpretation.

But critics are pointing out that such a rule would be unconstitutional. Specifically, Articles 21(2) and 37(2) of the Constitution prohibit the licensing or censorship of the press as well as the violation of essential aspects of basic rights, respectively.

Open Net, an information rights group, released a statement immediately after the KCC announced its plan to introduce the one strike rule. “The government’s announcement that it will monitor the media and the internet from all directions and sort out and strictly regulate fake news signifies governmental information control, which is both antidemocratic and unconstitutional and carries the risk of abuse for the purpose of suppressing anti-governmental public opinion,” the group said.

“Closing down media companies for making false reports clearly violates the principle of proportionality prescribed in the Constitution.”

During a phone call with the Hankyoreh, Yoon Chang-hyun, the head of the National Union of Media Workers, commented that a one-strike-out rule “that doesn’t permit any kind of error has the same effect as a censorship or approval system,” explaining that “there is not a single democratic country with such a system.”

He continued, “Prominent news outlets around the world make incorrect reports, which they apologize for and rectify by issuing corrections. Permitting erroneous reports is part of press freedom, as well as its kernel.”

The integrated review system, which would foreground the one strike rule, was also condemned as illegal.

Chungnam National University journalism professor Lee Seung-sun remarked, “The existing legal system entrusts the KCSC with reviewing the fairness and objectivity of broadcasting, and while this can be graded and considered by the KCC during its renewal and reapproval review, the final result is determined by the court according to claims by broadcasters.”

He added the idea of an integrated review system itself is “unlawful,” noting, “The KCC interfering in the process of determining fake news in itself diverges from broadcasting neutrality.”

Others made the point that eradicating fake news is unconstitutional in and of itself.

“In its ruling in the ‘Minerva case,’” the PCMR remarked, “the Constitutional Court judged that indiscriminate and patronizing intervention by the state, such as prohibitions and punishments using vague and subjective criteria like the intention to harm public interest, is questionable in its necessity, ruling that the criminalization of the distribution of false information is unconstitutional.”

There is also mounting criticism that the 180-degree flip in the Yoon Suk-yeol administration and the ruling party’s attitude regarding fake news clearly demonstrates the danger of arbitrary political authority.

When, in 2021, the then-ruling Democratic Party pushed to amend the Act on Press Arbitration and Damage Remedies to include provisions about punitive damages for fake news, Yoon Suk-yeol, a presidential candidate at the time, slammed the move as designed to “muzzle the press.” Kim Gi-hyeon, who was the People Power Party whip at the time, also described the move as a “modern-day book-burning gagging the press for making healthy criticism toward the administration.”

“Two years ago, working media groups including media labor unions criticized the unconstitutionality of a punitive damage system and opposed the amendment of the Press Arbitration Act, asking who would stipulate what counts as ‘malicious false reports,’” said Yoon Chang-hyun. “The Yoon Suk-yeol administration and ruling party should get a taste of the types of rhetoric they were spouting back in the day now that they’re going beyond financial penalties and calling for closures.”

Son Ji-won, a lawyer with Open Net, stated, “Various international organizations including the UN have repeatedly stressed through joint statements the danger of arbitrary regulation and punishment for fake news already,” adding that those statements are an “appropriate warning message for the current administration, which is baring its political intentions through expressions like ‘election interference’ and ‘disorderly national discipline’ without hesitation and even bringing up capital punishment.”

By Ahn Yeong-chun, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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