Today, ARTICLE 19, Human Rights Watch, Korean Progressive Network Jinbonet, and Open Net Korea wrote to members of the National Assembly of the Republic of Korea, members of the Consultative Committee on the Press Arbitration Law Amendment Bill, and to President Moon Jae-in to express serious concern about the proposed amendments to the Act on Press Arbitration and Remedy for Damages Caused by Press Reports (the ‘Press Arbitration Law’). As drafted, the proposed amendments would seriously impair freedom of expression, freedom of information and media freedom, and would discourage critical reporting by the media.
The bill containing the amendments was passed by the Culture, Sports and Tourism Committee on 19 August 2021 and was supposed to be voted on at the National Assembly in late August. On 31 August, floor leaders of the Democratic Party and the opposition People Power Party agreed to postpone the vote and consider the bill at a plenary parliamentary session set to begin on 27 September.
The letter outlines the following concerns about the bill:
- Awarding damages against media outlets, internet news services, and internet multimedia broadcasting operators for ‘false or manipulated’ statements. This provision could be used to penalise opinion pieces, satire, or parody, all of which are protected under international law. The vague language of the law has the potential to limit a wide range of expression, including critical news reporting and the reporting of unpopular or minority opinions, and the ambiguity of the law leaves it open to abuse.
- The proposed amendments would authorise courts to issue takedown orders on ‘untrue contents’ without any other requirement. The censorship permitted through this article violates the international human rights principle that expression cannot be restricted or punished simply for being false.
- The bill would establish grossly disproportionate punitive damages for ‘false or manipulated reporting.’ The bill states that ‘the court may assess compensation up to five times the damages’ if such reporting causes property damage, infringes on personality rights, or causes emotional distress. A maximum penalty of five times the actual loss is excessive and, by definition, disproportionate to the harms suffered. Punitive damages are only appropriate to compensate for harm to reputation in certain exceptional circumstances. The broad language of the amendment does not implicate any concerns that would merit such exceptional treatment.
- South Korea already possesses extensive civil and criminal defamation legislation that provides more than sufficient redress for reputational harms suffered due to false statements and thus the amendments are unnecessary.
- The proposed amendments list the news organisation’s ‘social influence’ and ‘previous year’s sales amount’ as among the factors to be considered by the court in calculating the actual damages. While the ‘social influence’ or sales of a news organisation may expand the reach of the ‘damaging’ statement, the use of this factor will heighten the risk for influential, mainstream news organizations and could have a serious chilling effect on their willingness to report on corruption or other wrongdoing by powerful figures.
- The bill creates a presumption that an allegedly ‘false or manipulated report’ was made ‘with intention or gross negligence’ in several broad and vaguely defined circumstances, posing a serious risk to press freedom.
- The bill extends punitive damages for ‘false or manipulated reporting’ to ‘internet news service providers’ and ‘internet multimedia broadcasting business operators.’ The imposition of liability on intermediaries for content posted by third parties is extremely problematic.
The letter specifies the following recommendations:
- Fully consult with stakeholders, media companies, internet intermediaries, and civil society groups to determine how to revise the bill to meet the requirements of international law, the standards elaborated by United Nations experts, and the Manila Principles on Intermediary Liability to protect the rights to privacy and freedom of expression.
- Delete Articles 2(17-3) and 30-2 from the bill.
- Delete Articles 2(17-2) and 17-2 from the bill.
For more information
Caroline Stover, Asia Programme Manager, email@example.com.