Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Print and be damned?

Korean Libel Laws

A minefield. Especially for internet bloggers. But it is no walk in the park for the mainstream media either.

I have learned a few things in the past couple of weeks while researching an article for The Korea Herald – “Is publish and be damned a wise choice?” (KH May 9). Some of those things, I actually wish I hadn't learned. It has been a frustrating period. The National Security Law notwithstanding, the illusion that Korea has a completely “free press” has taken a bit of a beating.

The shocking fact that “getting it right” isn't enough to protect a writer from a libel suit is rather hard to swallow. Of course, a story has to have value. It has to qualify as being in the public interest – not simply of interest to a gawking, pedestrian public who crave titillating, sensational celebrity stories.

That has never been a problem for me. I don't do “titillating, sensational celebrity stories.” Reporting on documented incidents of wrongdoing can still land a reporter in trouble, if the subject of the report decides that his or her reputation has been tarnished by the article. The idea that people who have been found guilty of breach of contract or of some other illegal activity can convince themselves they still have a reputation to tarnish is beyond me. But then, this isn't Kansas.

The concept of forgiveness for past misdeeds is laudable, and is far more entrenched in the national psyche here in Korea than it is in Europe or in the United States. But when that extends to protecting wrongdoers who have shown no indication that they have any intention of apologizing for and modifying their behavior, then the libel law becomes a useful tool for the unscrupulous and a chokehold on the mainstream media.

The print media does have a very tenuous “get out of jail free card” – if we can prove our facts, and if we can convince the judge the information revealed in the report was in the public interest.

But this is where it gets very subjective. While working on the article for The Korea Herald, a lawyer warned me that exposing English language hagwons that have blatantly breached contract and are attempting to exploit their foreign staff is absolutely not in the public interest. Koreans, he said, have no interest in how hagwons may or may not treat their foreign staff. If I did expose them, he cautioned, they could sue for libel and they would win. I would have harmed their “reputation.”

I mean no criticism of the lawyer who made the comment, I just fundamentally disagree with his conclusion. Was he really suggesting that Korean parents – who in his interpretation represent the real public – have no interest in the emotional state of mind of the teachers to which they entrust their children on a daily basis? To me at least, that idea is absurd. But if he was the lawyer for the hagwon, and if he was lucky enough to find a “sympathetic” judge, well, I might just be looking at a hefty fine and a trip to Incheon Airport.

I have been thinking quite a lot about what constitutes "public interest" and its relationship to journalistic ethics - in the Korean context, but that is something for another post.

The Korea Herald article, “Is print and be damned a wise choice?” can be found on the following link:


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1 comment:

Brendon Carr said...

He would never be the lawyer for the hagwon!