South Korean President Moon Jae-in speaks at the National Assembly in Seoul, South Korea, October 28, 2020. © 2020 Jeon Heon-kyun/Pool Photo via AP

(Seoul) - South Korea’s National Assembly should reject proposed amendments to the law on media arbitration that would undermine media freedom and freedom of expression, Article 19, Korean Progressive Network Jinbonet, Open Net Association, and Human Rights Watch said today in letters to President Moon Jae-in , National Assembly members, and the consultative committee reviewing the bill. Parliamentary sessions on the Act on Press Arbitration and Remedy for Damages Caused by Press Reports (the “Press Arbitration Law”) are scheduled to begin on September 27, 2021.

The amendment bill of the Press Arbitration Law’s vague language and disproportionate damages against media outlets could limit a wide range of expression, including critical news reporting and coverage of unpopular or minority opinions. Media outlets may be compelled to self-censor to avoid publishing reports that may trigger unwarranted lawsuits. In this way, the proposed law will restrict the free flow information that is so critical in a democracy, the organizations said.

“The proposed changes to South Korea’s Press Arbitration Law would seriously undermine media freedom because they authorize punitive damages simply on the basis alleged ‘false or manipulated’ reporting,” said Lina Yoon, senior Korea researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Unless the consultative committee significantly revises the bill before it reaches the National Assembly, the legislators should reject it outright.”

The bill defines “false or manipulated” reporting as “the act of reporting or mediating false information or information manipulated to be misconstrued as facts,” and authorizes the court to assess compensation “up to five times the damages” if such reporting causes property damage, infringes on personality rights, or causes emotional distress. Because the bill would permit awarding damages even if the falsity is not material, those subject to critical reporting could seek to recover punitive damages on the grounds of emotional distress for even minor factual errors.

The bill also creates a presumption that an allegedly “false or manipulated report” was made “with intention or gross negligence” in several broad and vaguely defined circumstances, including when “retaliatory or repetitive” false or manipulated reports have been made.

The law does not specify what would constitute a “retaliatory” report, raising the risk of arbitrary application of the law. In addition, the presumption of guilt may force journalists to choose between revealing their sources to counter the presumption or paying heavy damages. 

“This bill would deal a hammer blow to critical news reporting in South Korea because it opens the door for political leaders to retaliate against stories they don’t like,” Yoon said. “National Assembly members should ensure that the bill does not pass until it is revised to protect rights.”