Lawmakers in South Korea have drafted a proposed revision to the country’s Press Arbitration Act. The bill would create a legal channel for victims of false claims made in the press to seek compensation from news organizations. The so-called “fake news” bill faced intense criticism from international journalism organizations, whose representatives saw an anti-democratic effort to suppress a free press. Amid debate over the proposal, the ruling party decided to delay a vote on the bill until next year.
International criticism of the bill came on the wrong grounds. South Korea is attempting to deal with the now-universal issue of media organizations — including big tech — getting caught up in the politically-motivated propagation of falsehoods. Policymakers across the world are struggling with this problem. Far from being a throwback to authoritarian suppression of independent media, the bill in South Korea is an ahead-of-the-curve effort to grapple with the changing relationship between democracy and media organizations. The point here is not that Korean legislators have found the right solution, but that it is important to recognize the shared problem they have sought to tackle.
A central concern with the bill is that a government figure or politician might use the revised act as a weapon to suppress criticism, according to a statement issued by the International Press Institute (IPI), which urged lawmakers to withdraw the bill. News organizations are worried they may face lawsuits for simply doing their job. Fear of reprisals could lead, in turn, to self-censorship. If that happens, then reporters cannot perform their function of keeping powerful people in check.
Drafters of the bill have pointed out that this concern is valid. Any attempt to regulate media comes with that risk. As records of the meetings of the legislative committee that examined and refined the bill show, lawmakers discussed and agreed on the need to protect freedom of the press. Proponents of the bill, though, set freedom of the press against “citizens’ rights.” Among these rights is the right not to be a “victim of the press.” By that, drafters mean those who have suffered because of false claims about them in the media. Slanderous articles based on little evidence can damage lives and careers — and they are published far too often in South Korea.
The low editorial standards at South Korea’s biggest news groups have their roots in a particular history. Under decades of Cold War authoritarianism, newsrooms in South Korea were permitted — if not outright encouraged — to fabricate stories that supported the regime. Newspapers could hurl unsubstantiated accusations or spread rumors, such as calling someone a “communist,” and shatter his or her reputation.
Even as the country democratized, this habit of printing unchecked claims stuck.
South Korea’s largest news outlets also belong to conglomerates with business interests in many sectors, media being just one of them. The primary media groups in South Korea are not fourth-estate watchdogs — though the country has those — but rather arms of major corporations that are embedded in the country’s power structure.
Among the “victims of the press” are elected politicians. While scrutiny of public figures is a key job of the media, powerful press organizations can create scandals wholesale and depose public figures who should be accountable to voters. As Choe Sang-hun of The New York Times writes, “Hardly a day passes without newspapers and social media accounts in South Korea carrying poorly sourced reports of corruption.”
In this politics of invented scandal, powerful and unaccountable media groups lay siege to democratic systems of accountability — and they hide behind the banner of “freedom of the press” as they do it. Particular interests can then, in undemocratic fashion, derail initiatives that policymakers were elected to pursue.
This inversion of the expected role of the press in a free society should sound familiar. Its effects are similar to the distorting influence of big tech’s digital platforms: a set of media organizations, backed by impressive wealth, propagates news stories and opinions in ways that have political consequences but claims no editorial responsibility. Nobody wishes to impose limits on healthy speech, but there is broad consensus today that social media platforms need regulation.
Little surprise, then, that the South Korean “fake news” bill was proposed alongside legislation (which did pass) forcing Apple and Google to relinquish a degree of control over sales on their application stores. South Korean lawmakers view too-powerful tech conglomerates and politicized false reporting as related problems.
The debate South Korea is having over its “fake news” bill is the kind needs to happen in more places. It no longer makes sense to imagine that media organizations are only ever independent bodies that unconditionally make democracy better. The world needs creative attempts to reconfigure that relationship.
International groups condemning the bill also carelessly accuse South Korea’s ruling party of taking an “authoritarian” approach. Even a cursory look at the processes of proposal, deliberation, and public engagement would show that such an assessment is way off the mark. Anyone can visit the National Assembly website and peruse the hundreds of pages of minutes from committee meetings focused on just this bill.
South Korea is a country working hard — and vociferously — at its democracy. Ordinary people come out onto the streets to defend democracy passionately. They tune in to morning radio programs that carefully dissect bills, with dispassionate explanation from lawmakers recounting committee debates.
The Korean bill, whether it eventually passes or not, might not be the best solution to the politicized propagation of falsehoods. But when a thriving democracy like South Korea takes a stab at managing a problem of global relevance, it’s worth watching.