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South Korea’s ‘Fake News’ Battle Raises Concerns Amid Press Freedom Threats

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In South Korea, President Yoon Suk Yeol’s camp is aggressively confronting what they perceive as a critical threat to the nation’s stability. The head of Mr. Yoon’s party has advocated for the death penalty in a case of “high treason.” Simultaneously, the culture ministry has pledged to dismantle an alleged “organized and insidious” scheme aimed at destabilizing the country’s democracy.

Surprisingly, the accused entity is not a foreign agent but a local news outlet that has been publishing critical content concerning Mr. Yoon and his administration.

President Yoon, a former prosecutor, is employing legal action, state regulatory measures, and criminal inquiries to suppress what he terms disinformation, mainly directed at news institutions. Since Mr. Yoon’s election last year, law enforcement and prosecutors have conducted repeated raids on the residences and editorial offices of journalists accused by his office of propagating “fake news.”

Many South Koreans perceive Mr. Yoon’s actions as an attempt to misuse the term “fake news” to validate defamation claims and mobilize law enforcement and regulatory bodies to issue threats and instigate criminal investigations. This move has left citizens frustrated, as it is not only reinforcing the existing political division but also perpetuating a phrase widely used by authoritarian leaders worldwide.

In South Korea, the populace takes pride in the hard-fought democracy and an independent press attained after enduring years of military rule. They’ve also celebrated their country’s growing soft power on the global stage.

While Mr. Yoon might be recognized internationally for aligning closely with the United States and his notable rendition of “American Pie” at the White House, his presidency has been marked by constant clashes with the opposition and concerns regarding censorship and democratic regression.

Leaders of democratic nations worldwide have grappled with combating the harmful impact of online disinformation. Yet, Mr. Yoon’s detractors, including liberal opposition and journalists’ associations, have accused him of curtailing freedom of expression under the guise of fighting disinformation. An extensive survey this year highlighted the majority of local journalists’ belief that press freedom has significantly receded under Mr. Yoon’s tenure.

Critics argue that allowing the government to define what constitutes “fake news” is perilous. Pae Jung Kun, a journalism professor at Sookmyung Women’s University in Seoul, emphasized how such actions impede the media’s accountability to hold the government responsible.

Mr. Yoon’s crackdown intensified in September, with his office singling out an independent news organization for its previous coverage. Newstapa, the target of his ire, faced raids on its premises, with authorities accusing journalists of disseminating “fake news.” This escalation marked a substantial shift in the country’s approach since its democratization in the 1990s.

Newstapa’s report, published three days before Yoon’s election in March 2022, detailed allegations against Mr. Yoon, suggesting that as a prosecutor in 2011, he chose not to indict an individual embroiled in a financial scandal. However, Mr. Yoon has consistently denied these claims. The outlet acquired an audio file of a conversation, which it presented as evidence to support its report. However, the government’s response involving criminal investigations and home raids on journalists sparked widespread debate on freedom of the press.

President Yoon’s drive to counter “fake news” has stirred controversy, polarizing the nation and casting shadows on the hard-won democratic environment. The president’s antagonistic stance toward critical media institutions raises concerns about press freedom and the rule of law in South Korea.

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