In the 27 years since democracy arrived here, South Korea has become home to rowdy election campaigns, a vibrant protest culture and dozens of daily newspapers traversing the full political spectrum. It’s a place where people don’t have to be asked twice for their opinions.
But now, analysts and journalists are expressing concern that a central tenet of democracy — a free press — is under threat.
President Park Geun-hye’s administration has launched an aggressive crackdown on media outlets that run reports it considers unfavorable, leading to a raft of domestic defamation cases and one high-profile lawsuit against a conservative Japanese journalist.
This is sparking especially unflattering comparisons for the president.
“Park Geun-hye is taking a page from her dictator father’s playbook,” said Peter Beck, a Korea expert at the New Paradigm Institute in Seoul.
Park, who took office as South Korea’s first female president in February last year, is the daughter of Park Chung-hee, the army general who seized power through a military coup and ruled South Korea for almost all of the 1960s and 1970s. That period was associated with astonishing economic growth but also with the suppression of civil liberties and political freedoms, including freedom of the press.
South Korea is hardly turning into totalitarian North Korea, but the dictator Park’s legacy is now being alluded to more frequently here as numerous cases against journalists are going through the legal system.
Defamation is defined here as the intention to injure someone’s reputation, but an exception is made when the reports are in the public interest. This exception, though nebulous, has generally protected the press. No longer.
Among the current cases, Park’s aides are suing the left-leaning Hankyoreh newspaper over a report suggesting that a photo opportunity with a girl at the site of South Korea’s April ferry disaster was staged.
Presidential aides are also suing journalists at the Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s largest newspaper, and the Sisa Journal over their reports that a presidential aide got involved in the appointment of senior officials at Korea Telecom and KB Financial Group.
Now the Segye Ilbo newspaper is being sued for last week quoting leaked documents and alleging that Chung Yoon-hoi, Park’s chief of staff while she was in parliament, tried to influence state affairs. Those allegations are still reverberating here, causing huge political headaches for the president.
A spokeswoman for the president, Yoo Myung-hee, said that Segye Ilbo released classified government information “without even minimal efforts to verify the facts,” and asserted that this had caused public confusion and had dealt a “severe blow” to the reputation of government organizations and senior officials.
“Freedom of the press and the people’s right to know have to be safeguarded,” she said. “Notwithstanding that, actions that unjustifiably harm the public interest, which includes the safeguarding of state secrets, and damage the reputation of individuals cannot be permitted. The implicit limits to freedom of the press should not be overstepped.”
But the case that is making waves outside South Korea involves Tatsuya Kato, who was the Seoul bureau chief for Japan’s Sankei Shimbun until he was charged over a report he wrote in August. That story, which was based on a previous report in the Chosun Ilbo, questioned where Park was on the day in April that the Sewol ferry sank, with the loss of 304, mostly teenage, lives.
Kato recycled rumors that Park was away on a personal matter and could not be reached.
The president’s office adamantly denies the rumors, and three groups of her supporters — including one called “The people who love Dokdo,” referring to an island at the center of a territorial dispute between Japan and Korea — filed a defamation complaint against Kato.
Lazy journalism, yes. But a crime?
The case is viewed as highly political, not least because of Sankei’s editorial positions. One of Japan’s most conservative papers, it maintains that the mainly Korean sex slaves used by Japanese soldiers during World War II were prostitutes.
Chosun Ilbo has not been sued for printing the original report.
But Kato has been banned since August from leaving Korea — his wife and three children have returned to Tokyo — and will go on trial Monday. His attorneys say the trial could take eight months, even before the inevitable appeal. If convicted, he faces seven years in prison or a fine of $45,000.
After a pretrial hearing in November, Korean men crowded around Kato’s car as he tried to leave the court, yelling expletives at him and throwing eggs at the vehicle’s windows, according to a video posted on YouTube.
“This case shows what kind of leader Park Geun-hye is, what her character is,” Kato told The Washington Post in the Sankei’s bureau in Seoul. “It’s quite outstanding that this kind of administration could come to power given the current state of Korean democracy.”
Moon Jae-in, an opposition lawmaker who narrowly lost to Park in the 2012 presidential election, has accused her of using scare tactics to silence critics.
“I do not necessarily agree with the views of the Sankei Shimbun, but I do not think indicting an individual for publishing false facts is the right thing to do,” Moon said recently, adding that freedom of expression must be “guaranteed to the utmost.”
Park’s spokeswoman said she would not comment on a case that was going through the courts but referred to the prosecutor’s indictment, which said the Sankei story was fabricated and defamatory and cited unreliable information.
“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,” Yoo said in an e-mailed statement. “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.”
Lawyers say it will be extremely difficult for Kato or the other journalists to win their cases because it is up to the journalist concerned to prove the story true.
The prosecution will have a chilling effect on the press, said Brendon Carr, an American attorney practicing in Seoul.
That is exactly the effect that Park’s administration is hoping for, analysts said.
“The current South Korean administration is sending a message to the press not to write adverse reports about the government,” said Lee Cheol-hee, a political analyst at the private Doomoon Political Strategy Research Institute. “The current situation shows what a typically authoritarian government Park Geun-hye is leading,” he said. “Democracy has been retreating under this administration.”
But the media is not running scared. At least, not completely.
“What kind of shameless president,” the Hankyoreh wrote in
an editorial last week on the
influence-peddling scandal, “gets angry at the newspapers instead of blaming herself for leaving her country in this abnormal state?”
Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that aides to President Park Geun-hye are suing the Hankyoreh newspaper over a report that the government ignored reports that the Sewol ferry, which sank in April, was unsafe. Aides threatened to sue but did not. The article also said that presidential aides are suing the Chosun Ilbo and the Sisa Journal over reports that a presidential aide got involved in the appointment of chairmen at Korea Telecom and KB Financial Group. The aides are suing the reporters who wrote those stories, not the publications themselves. Also, the case involved the appointment of senior officials, but not chairmen, at those companies. This version has been corrected.