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A journalist reports at the ruling Democratic Party for the parliamentary election at the National Assembly amid the Covid-19 outbreak on April 15, 2020 in Seoul, South Korea.  © 2020 Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

In a victory for media freedom in South Korea, the country’s ruling Democratic Party has shelved a proposed law that could have seriously harmed press freedom.

Instead, the Democratic Party and the main opposition People Power Party formed a special committee on “press and media systems’ reform,” which will operate until the end of this year to reexamine this bill and discuss other laws related to media and the press.

The change in position followed advocacy efforts from coalitions that included ARTICLE 19, Korean Progressive Network Jinbonet, Open Net Association, and Human Rights Watch, among others.

The South Korean government struggled with poorly sourced negative media coverage that it claimed was “fake news” or false reporting, and President Moon Jae-in and the ruling party were not happy about it.

The proposed amendment to the Act on Press Arbitration and Remedies would have allowed courts to impose penalties of five times the actual damages on media outlets for publishing allegedly false or manipulated information. The availability of such disproportionate damages would have a chilling effect on freedom of expression and promote self-censorship in reporting in South Korea, which is already constrained by criminal defamation laws that should be rescinded. Moreover, the overly broad and vaguely worded definitions in the bill would have given the government wide leeway to restrict opinion pieces, satire, and, crucially, critical news reporting the government did not like.

After the amended bill was passed in a first reading by South Korea’s National Assembly in August, there was swift backlash by activists and in the media. In September, a coalition of activists, including Human Rights Watch, submitted to the government a legal analysis of the dangers of the bill and participated in a panel organized by the opposition People’s Party, calling for the rejection of the bill. As a result of the campaign and the subsequent media attention, there was enough pressure created for the Democratic Party to halt the fast-tracking of the bill.

This is good news for South Korea’s democracy, which is made stronger by the free flow of information created by an independent and diverse media.

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