South Korea: Media Manipulation in the Name of Protection

This is part two of a comparative analysis on North and South Korean media landscapes. Check out part one on North Korean censorship.

North Korea is known to the world as the second worst country for freedom of press. The country’s ongoing mission to become a nuclear power-house has done little to change the world’s hostile and cautionary perceptions. Tension increases each day between North and South Korea due to their status of war. However, disturbing practices extend to the rest of the peninsula as South Korea’s continuous use of censorship and defamation laws make it almost impossible to speak out against the issues in their own country. These limitations also hinder citizens’ abilities to accurately understand the activities of the North Korean regime.

South Korea has turned to its own brand of censorship to counteract propaganda from North Korea. For instance, the South Korean Communications Standards Commission (KCSC) has banned North Korea’s government controlled news source, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), and NK Watch, which raises awareness about different human rights violations committed by the North Korean regime.

According to NK News, an independent online outlet focused on disseminating information about North Korea, the aforementioned sites have been banned due to the National Security Law. The law was first established in 1948 and has since restricted freedom of speech, assembly, and association that may endanger national security. Starting in 2013, South Korea banned NK News and other similar sites.

The National Security Law is thorough enough that it protects citizens from even dangerous podcast hosts on top of potentially harmful online publications. In 2015, two journalists from the satirical podcast “Naneun Ggomsuda” appeared before an appeals court for defaming the brother of former President Park Geun-hye. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the case was dismissed and replaced by three more defamation cases that same week.

According to the Human Rights Watch, those found guilty of using accurate information can be fined 20 million won ($18,500) or spend three years in prison. If defendants are found guilty of using false information to defame the government, they can spend seven years in prison or be fined 50 million won ($46,000).

This law serves to benefit the government and is abused by the major political parties in South Korea. According to the Journal of Contemporary Asia, parties across the political spectrum limit press freedom to sabotage political competition. Any attempt to bring attention to or stop this practice has been ineffective because acting governments use these methods to maintain power.

Former President Park Geun-hye of the conservative party used the National Security Law in 2014 to disband a left-wing political party known as the United Progressive Party (UPP). According to Financial Times, members of the UPP were charged with plotting sabotage and rebellion against the South Korean government as well as expressing support for Kim Jong-un’s regime. Though these actions do not reflect the entire party, the group was effectively disbanded.

These legal media tactics are used to interfere and undermine media from both sides of the political spectrum, undermining the country’s democracy, which is central to the core of South Korea’s identity. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, “critics say that such laws are at odds with a liberal democracy” and that the restrictive nature of the South Korean government has fluctuated since the late 1980’s. As a result, South Korean citizens are deprived of truly fair elections because winners are based on which party successfully suppressed the other despite citizens’ vote. Defamation laws create an environment where it is difficult for South Korean citizens to critique the electoral process.

While South Korean media-related abuses do not compare to those of its notorious neighbor, the partly-free democracy continues to prevent published questioning or disagreement with the actions of the government. Press freedom is limited on the web as aggressive requirements for registering online newspapers prohibit the praise of North Korea. Political parties are also able to request the removal of “defamatory” content that critiques the government.

Segye Ilbo is one of the newspapers that has been severely impacted by this law. Six staff writers were charged with defamation last November, desecrating Segye Ilbo’s reputation. Similarly, one of the biggest South Korean news organizations, OhmyNews, was under government scrutiny for allowing a Korean-American reporter to post stories about visiting North Korea.  

Both the domestic and international media strategies of North and South Korea not only hinder the ability of citizens to understand the outside world, but the true nature of their neighbor. For North Korea, controlling information maintains the regime’s power. The South Korean government limits access to media from or concerning North Korea to protect citizens from propaganda efforts.

“North Koreans don’t know anything about South Korea” claims Prachi Vidwans from the Human Rights Foundation. “They only know the lies that the regime has told them. As far as they know, South Korea is an impoverished, war-torn country under the control of the American empire.”

In the case of South Korean citizens, any sympathy for the north is rendered illegal by the National Security Law and even used as a political insult. According to George Washington University’s Korean Foundation Professor Celeste Arrington, left-leaning politicians have been accused of being ‘communist sympathizers,’ which was the case in 2014.

The main conservative group, the New Frontier Party or Saenuri Party, has been accused of being too harsh on North Korea. This accusation is the result of the party’s overwhelming support of the Terminal High Altitude Defense (THAAD) which is a collaborative effort with the United States that would be used as a means of defense against North Korean nuclear strikes.

As a result of the ever-growing threat North Korea faces, South Korea turns to manipulating media and censorship. Such tactics display the danger even democracies face to undermine basic rights such as freedom of press, association, and speech in times of crisis.

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