Conservative Abe’s secrecy law doesn’t hold a candle to Seoul’s press suppression


Special To The Japan Times

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.

  • GBR48

    “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,”

    You could substitute any country for ‘Korea’ in that statement and it would still be true.

    Check out the wikipedia entry on the DA-Notice. It would not be prudent for me to publicly speculate upon such things, so I won’t. I’ll leave that to foreign nationals.

    Equivalents of Japan’s shiny new secrecy laws have effectively been in operation in almost every other country for years, and where there haven’t been laws, there have been adequate alternatives that didn’t involve themselves with the annoying paperwork required by legislation.

    Multiple techniques are currently being implemented by most governments to develop national limits to internet access, which will bring it more comprehensively in line with and subject to national laws.

    That’s not just for Government secrets but for those of individuals too. Check the Wikipedia entry for ‘Super-injunctions in English law’. This is the go-to option for anyone who wants to keep their name out of the media. It is very effective: you cannot even say that a super injunction has been served on someone without criminalising yourself. It effectively erases a crime from the public sphere for anyone rich enough to obtain one. Unfortunately for the British courts, the internet as it stands can ignore such things, and UK citizens might actually stumble across something that they are not supposed to know on a foreign website. Rather than fix the legal system, the obvious solution here, should you be a lawyer or a politician, is to block access to foreign websites.

    All sorts of websites are now subject to regional blocking, not just YouTube alternatives and wannabe Pirate Bays. As you can’t see them, you probably don’t know that they are being hidden. This is fairly easy to do at ISP level.

    The changes are not just shadowy tech activities but economic policies such as the EU’s new tax regime for digital products. This is aimed at ‘closing tax loopholes’, making it much more complicated to purchase digital products across national boundaries within the EU. This will only operate within the EU, but expect other regional versions of it, and then international rules. Residents of tiny countries who began to feel like they were more closely connected to the rest of the world thanks to the internet, may soon find themselves rather more isolated again. Ultimately, the rest of the world will feel an awful lot further away again for all of us, as access to foreign sites, products, news, communities and music is increasingly restricted.

    The global village is scheduled for demolition.

    I expect the next big push will be to make VPN software illegal under the guise of preventing tax evasion, identity theft or terrorism. VPN software allows you to pretend to be somewhere else, so TV licence-fee paying Brits on holiday can watch BBC TV online. This is something they cannot do without using a VPN as the folk who programmed the iPlayer software didn’t think to set up a system of registration to accommodate such use. This single act of thoughtlessness accidentally educated the British public into the use of VPNs.

    A VPN effectively allows you to dodge region-blocking and can be done easily and cheaply (or for free)-some browsers even have such features built-in.

    Torrenting can easily be spotted at an ISP level, so that can also be blocked.

    Encryption per se is trickier as it is a necessity for e-commerce, but there are manifold ways of cracking down on encrypted traffic. The simplest is to only allow it to be used on specific websites (like Amazon and ebay), under licence.

    Most countries don’t worry as much as you might think they do about foreign nationals. Nobody is going to invade the US any time soon, for example. But all elected governments worry about their own citizens and about the opinions they may be forming from media sources that they cannot influence.

    It won’t be long before the brief bout of globalised freedom that is the world wide web is no longer world-wide. The free flow of information and the general concept of the ‘citizen of the world’ is regarded by politicians globally as dangerous. It might erode the concept of the nation state and undermine the basis of an elected government leading a nation, say when the people of that nation suddenly decide to make up their own mind about something, in response to a viral video.

    If you don’t like the thought of the loss of the joys of the net, well tough. You won’t be able to vote against it, because all of the realistic options on your ballot papers will be for parties who will have every intention of locking down the free flow of global information. Politicians of all parties sing from the same hymn sheet on core issues.

    And for those who think that it will be possible to just route around any blocks, sorry. It is in the nature of technology that back doors can be closed.

    The early battles, say to prevent the spread of PGP encryption, governments lost. The later rounds will all go the other way.

    The world wide web: 1991-? We will probably be able to fill in that last date sooner than most people think.

    Enjoy it whilst it lasts, because we are no longer at the end of the beginning of the WWW. We are now at the beginning of the end.

  • Guest

    ““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”

    Well that’s quite funny coming from japan. And I wouldn’t say japan is really a “democracy” anyway in the sense it has been controlled by the exact same conservative government for almost its entire postwar history.

  • rossdorn

    Basically the valid answer to an article like that is:

    When I walk on a road, and there are to heaps of dog-droppings, one big one small… Then I choose not to step happily and joyfully into the small one and feel good about myself.

    I walk around all of them….
    The only reason I live in Japon is my family.

  • Toolonggone

    Park’s father is the one who belonged to those who governed in the military regime, just like Japan’s current Prime Minister.

  • TommyTCG

    Whatcha bet the cia is running all this for them. With the ferry fiasco ine winders if the K have enough ‘thinking’ to do all this.