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Justice ministry's upcoming crackdown on misinformation sparks controversy

Politics 14:14 October 31, 2019

SEOUL, Oct. 31 (Yonhap) -- The Ministry of Justice has drawn fire for its controversial move to ban reporters found responsible for spreading incorrect news on criminal investigations from prosecution offices.

According to government officials on Thursday, the ministry has completed a revision of its public affairs guidelines to basically prohibit disclosure of criminal cases, including charges against suspects and investigation proceedings, as part of its prosecutorial reform plans.

Public summoning and photographing or filming of suspects will also be entirely banned under the revised guidelines set to take effect next month.

Notably, the guidelines contain a clause that says, "Reporters and media workers publicizing misinformation that can infringe on the honor, privacy and human rights of persons involved in criminal cases, prosecutors and investigators can be prohibited from accessing prosecution offices."

Justice ministry's upcoming crackdown on misinformation sparks controversy - 1

The ministry's unusually hard-line stance, however, triggered heated controversy, as the new guidelines lack clear criteria on the definition of misinformation and human rights violations.

Critics say there will be sufficient room for arbitrary interpretations of news reports by the ministry and prosecution authorities.

The justice ministry's decision to crack down on misinformation appears to be in line with a recent push by the Moon Jae-in administration and the ruling Democratic Party to tighten rules on press reporting of criminal investigations.

In particular, some administration officials and ruling party lawmakers have expressed concern about a flood of news reports on the ongoing prosecution investigations into the family of former Justice Minister Cho Kuk, calling many of them "incorrect."

During a parliamentary audit of the prosecution on Oct. 7, Rep. Song Ki-heon of the Democratic Party called for practical measures to restrain media reports on criminal cases, noting that in Tokyo, Japan, news organizations describing specific figures as suspects or reporting on the outlook for criminal cases are banned from accessing prosecution offices.

As the justice ministry's new guidelines were made known, many reporters covering the prosecution vented their resentment, accusing the ministry of unilaterally pushing ahead with reform plans without consulting the opinions of media organizations. They say obscure criteria on misinformation and human rights violations in the new guidelines can be problematic.

This file photo shows the Seoul Central District Prosecutors Office. (Yonhap)

This file photo shows the Seoul Central District Prosecutors Office. (Yonhap)

The Journalists Association of Korea issued a statement on Thursday urging the justice ministry to immediately halt its attempt to control the news media.

"The justice ministry's new media guidelines are deemed as an excessive restraint on the media. If they are implemented, the media's oversight over investigation organizations will be sharply weakened," the statement said, adding that an unclear definition of misinformation will also add to confusion.

The Supreme Prosecutors Office (SPO) has reportedly opposed the ministry's new media guidelines, according to informed officials.

"A ban on reporters' access to prosecution offices and briefings is a matter that should be determined by reporters themselves in accordance with their own news coverage rules. It is not a matter that involves the prosecution," an official at the SPO said.

Faced with mounting criticism, the ministry explained that its current public affairs guidelines already includes a clause stipulating disadvantages against reporters responsible for fake or speculative news stories.

"The new rules are intended to put restraints on reporters who issue defamatory disinformation without checking facts. But the new guidelines will be very strictly enforced only when news reports are found to be obviously fabricated," a ministry official said.

The ministry also sent a text message to reporters Thursday saying the observance of the new guidelines is not mandatory but will be subject to judgment by chiefs of district prosecutors offices.

"The imposition of an access ban on reporters will be actually implemented only when a serious case of defamatory misinformation occurs," the ministry's message said.


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