SEOUL, Sept 30, South Korea's ruling party has backed down on a controversial bill to make tougher penalties for false information publication, after critics at home and abroad branded it 'a move to stifle dissents in public and critical coverage'.
Instead of putting its proposed "fake news" bill to a vote this week, President Moon Jae-in's liberal Democratic Party agreed late on Wednesday to form interdisciplinary panel with opposition lawmakers to examine alternatives to amend existing legislation.
The study will also explore how to deal with the spread of false information on social media such as Facebook and YouTube, which is covered by a separate law.
South Korea is home to a vibrant news business, ranking well on media freedom lists, but it has struggled with the spread of misinformation and cyber bullying in recent years.
The proposed amendment to the Act on Press Arbitration and Remedies would allow courts to charge damages five times higher than they can now for producing false or fabricated statements "with intent or gross negligence" that violate a plaintiff's rights, inflict property damage, or cause emotional distress. read more
Media outlets, including internet news service providers, must make corrections for erroneous reports, according to the bill.
Moon's Democrats stated that the bill was intended to ensure that media took greater responsibility for the damage caused by incorrect statements and to improve news quality and public trust.
But opposition politicians, human rights activists, and both conservative and liberal leaning media groups said the amendments would shield individuals at power from legitimate scrutiny and harm democracy.
Senior Democrat Yun Ho-jung said the party has not given up on its desire for punitive damages, but it will gather a broad range of views, including from media and civic groups and experts.
A coalition of journalist and news producer associations welcomed the decision, but it stated that the panel should include reporters, scholars, activists, and legal professionals in order to establish a better deal.
VAGUE AND DISPROPORTIONATE VAGANES AND DESCRIPTIONATE ARE PERSONAL
Governments and businesses in the United Kingdom are increasingly fighting the spread of false information online and its incidence, but activists fear harsh legal penalties may be used to silence opposition.
A coalition of rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, has launched a global campaign to fight the amendment and sent letters to South Korea's National Assembly and Moon, expressing concerns about media freedom.
"The ruling party appears to have accepted the concerns of the international community. That's a relief," said Ethan Hee-seok Shin, spokesman for the Seoul-based Transitional Justice Working Group, which is part of the coalition.
Moon's office did not provide immediate comment, but he stated last week that reviewers were needed to reflect the bill'' many concerns.
Irene Khan, a US special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, highlighted the current bill's vague rhetoric and disproportionate punishment, which she said could undermine not just media freedom but also national prestige.
"It will send a negative message to people across the world who are looking for Korea as he or she is portrayed as the role model," Khan stated in d'uniform last week.
In a video message released on Tuesday, Mary Lawlor, U.N. special rapporteur on human rights defenders, warned of 'chilling impact' on rights advocacy.
Public sentiment is divided, with WinGKorea Consulting's poll published in August indicating that 46% of respondents supported the bill, while nearly 42% predicted it would sue press freedom.
On the World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders this year, South Korea ranks 42 out of 180 countries.