For people concerned with the weakening of press freedoms under the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, its criticism of the liberal Asahi Shimbun and the new state secrets law, there should still be a sense of relief that media suppression in Japan has not quite reached the levels now being seen in South Korea.
Like Japan, South Korea is currently governed by a decidedly conservative regime — that of President Park Geun-hye and her Saenuri Party, known until early 2012 as the Grand National Party.
As highlighted in the ongoing defamation trial of the former Seoul bureau chief of the right-leaning Sankei Shimbun, Park has shown intolerance toward public criticism of her government. Her administration is apparently determined to intimidate or even entirely shut down those media outlets that have persistently opposed official policies.
Investigative journalist Choo Chin-woo, 41, is at the center of one of the most troubling media suppression cases now underway in South Korea.
Choo said in a recent interview that he has received at least seven death threats on his mobile and office phones from anonymous callers since 2011, when the presidential election kicked off. Although he doesn’t know the source of the threats, he is convinced he is under regular electronic surveillance by government spooks.
It was not so long ago that Choo and three colleagues— Kim Ou-joon, Chung Bong-ju and Kim Yong-min — were news media superstars.
In April 2011 the four men launched a political commentary podcast called “Naneun Ggomsuda,” which roughly translates into English as “I’m a Petty-Minded Creep.”
The podcast became hugely popular. Downloads reached a rate of more than 2 million a week, making it one of the top Apple iTunes features not only in South Korea, but also globally.
What drew in their mass audience was a blend of humor, political commentary and utter irreverence toward the government and big business. In these no-holds-barred podcasts, the hosts mercilessly lampooned the conservative regime of then-President Lee Myung-bak.
But it is also fair to say that if one part of the public was eating it up, then the targets of the satire — the establishment — was enraged by the rise of this comedy team and the subversive political messages it promoted.
The hostility was mutual.
Satirist Kim Ou-joon told the Wall Street Journal in November 2011, “Our goal is to change the government.” He explained that South Koreans had become too educated and too sophisticated to waste any more of the nation’s time on conservative, backward-looking governments like the Lee administration.
The first of the four irreverent podcasters to be taken down was Chung Bong-ju, a former lawmaker. He was slapped with a one-year jail sentence for “spreading false rumors” about an alleged stock fraud he accused Lee of engaging in while in office, and was imprisoned at the end of 2011.
Then in 2012, parliamentary and presidential elections turned out quite contrary to the hopes and expectations of the podcasters, as the conservative Lee administration was replaced by the even more conservative Park administration.
The campaign was often dirty, leading to last year’s indictment of officials of the National Intelligence Service, South Korea’s spy agency, for allegedly engaging in smear campaigns on Twitter to support Park’s election and slander the opposition forces.
With his country’s intelligence agency being what it is, Choo said he used 35 different mobile phones in 2012 to avoid being listened in on during the election campaign period.
Their fears were quickly realized: Park’s younger brother, Park Ji-man, launched a defamation case in December 2012 against both Choo and Kim Ou-joon, leading to the immediate suspension of their wildly popular podcast and the silencing of what had become perhaps the most effective voice of the political opposition within South Korea’s media world.
Over the course of 2013, this developed into a criminal case against the journalist and the satirist, once again the charge being that they had “spread false rumors” — this time in connection to their suspicions that Park Ji-man was connected to a murder.
Prosecutors are seeking a three-year prison term for Choo and two years for Kim.
The court’s verdict is expected in January.
Even if they are found to be entirely innocent, they will still be liable for paying their own substantial legal fees.
Kim, 44, said he believes the purpose of the prosecution is to intimidate the news media.
“They have deliberately postponed our trial repeatedly so that we cannot return to our previous journalistic activities, and they want to make an example of us for having spoken out against the powerful,” he said. “This prosecution is to pressure other media outlets into silence.”
In fact, South Korea’s unusual and harsh laws on criminal defamation have long been controversial, and almost every president has used them to pursue their opponents.
Park Geun-hye is thus engaged in an activity that has many precedents.
What appears to set her government apart, however, is the frequency and intensity with which this tactic is being utilized. The cases against the podcasters hardly represent the only such prosecution going on at the moment, as several larger media outfits are also facing defamation charges from the president and her inner circle.
And now, the case against Tatsuya Kato, Sankei’s former Seoul bureau chief, has added a new, international dimension.
In August, Kato, 48, wrote a column for the Sankei’s website in which he repeated rumors reported in the major South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo that President Park was mysteriously missing for several hours on April 16 — the day of the tragic sinking of the ferry Sewol.
Kato suggested, quoting from the newspaper and gossip circulating in the stock brokerage industry, that the president was out of communication and “meeting privately” with a male acquaintance.
The Park government took no action against the Chosun Ilbo, which first produced the story, but it launched a criminal prosecution against Kato, who represents a foreign newspaper that is quite unpopular in South Korea because of its revisionist editorial line on history issues.
Kim Ou-joon, observing the Kato case, said: “They made the safe choice of picking on the Sankei while avoiding a direct conflict against their nation’s top newspaper, clearly in the hopes that anti-Japanese sentiment will work its magic to cover up their true intentions.”
When contacted for comment by The Japan Times, Yoo Myung-hee, spokeswoman for the foreign media at the Office of the President, said: “The Korean government protects the freedom of the press to the fullest extent in accordance with the constitution of the Republic of Korea and the law. All media organizations in Korea are afforded the enjoyment of such freedom of expression. However, this does not extend to a freedom to commit defamation through the publication of false information as fact.”
Major South Korean newspapers have not taken these prosecutions lying down, and some have even offered a partial defense of Kato.
The progressive Hankyoreh newspaper, for example, editorialized that while Kato had clearly written “a shoddy, sensational piece,” the president nevertheless “needs to give up her shameful defamation case” against the Japanese reporter.
The paper added that “while the reporter deserves criticism on an ethical level, there is no reason why he should be the subject of a criminal prosecution.”
The view that such legal cases are problematic and out of step with international standards is reinforced by a June 2013 report by Margaret Sekaggya, then-U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders.
Sekaggya specifically cited South Korea’s criminal defamation laws as an area of particular concern, arguing that such cases “unduly punish those who are critical of government policies and considerably reduce the space for defenders to exercise the basic right to freedom of expression, which is key to claiming other rights.”
Kato, now facing up to seven years in prison for the crime of reporting a story he picked up from one of the nation’s leading newspapers, was more full-throated in his criticism in a recent interview. While he is not under arrest, Kato has been banned from leaving the country pending his trial, in which he has pleaded not guilty to defaming the president.
“On the surface, Korea looks like a democratic state, but nowadays the government has begun building a scheme to repress the media in a sophisticated way, all of it within the framework of the legal and administrative system,” he said.
According to Kato, his trial will continue until around April, with a ruling expected around next spring or early summer.
Makiko Segawa is the Japan correspondent for Paris-based Reporters Without Borders and Michael Penn is president of the Shingetsu News Agency.