South Korea's ruling party nears passing of 'fake news' Bill

South Korea's Democratic Party has pointed to what it sees as a rise in "fake news" articles that have moved markets. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (BLOOMBERG) - South Korea's ruling party is set to push through a Bill stepping up penalties for "fake news", with international media groups arguing the measure could hamper press freedoms and opposition lawmakers saying it is intended to silence critics.

President Moon Jae-in's progressive Democratic Party used its supermajority in Parliament on Wednesday (Aug 25) to move out of committee the Bill to revise the Press Arbitration Act, setting it up for a full vote in a plenary session as early as this week.

Under the revised Bill, news organisations would be required to issue prompt corrections for the "deliberate" or "grossly negligent" dissemination of false news reports. It also calls for up to a fivefold increase in compensation paid as a penalty, if a court acknowledges the publication is false.

For cases that are hard to track the specific damage amount, the Bill dictates media organisations to compensate plaintiffs within the range of 50 million won (US$58,000) to 100 million won.

The Bill is meant to combat the dissemination of fake news, according to the Democratic Party, which has pointed to what it sees as a rise in news articles - often without any attribution - that have moved markets before they are corrected or deleted.

Others have published anonymous allegations posted online that have turned out to be untrue or denied by the accused, it said.

The Bill "establishes public trust in the press and expands the value of free speech", party spokesman Han Jun-ho said.

The main conservative opposition People Power Party (PPP) called the Bill unconstitutional and is planning a filibuster.

"The Democratic Party revealed its intention to curb the media that reported unfavourable news about them," PPP spokesman Jun Joo-hyae said on Monday.

Press freedom is a sensitive subject in South Korea, where authoritarian leaders who ruled the country until the late 1980s used their power to stamp out dissent and squeezed the media to be in line with the government.

Media watchdogs, including the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI), have called on Mr Moon's party to withdraw the legislation.

"At a time when authoritarian governments are increasingly adopting so-called 'fake news' laws to stifle criticism, it is disappointing to see a democratic country like South Korea follow this negative trend," IPI deputy director Scott Griffen said in a statement last week.

Mr Moon, whose single, five-year term ends in May, and his party have had their battles with the press.

Some of the most heated have involved two of Mr Moon's choices for justice minister who were forced to step down in the face of local media reports of graft and favouritism, which eventually led to investigations by prosecutors and charges being brought.

The media Bill comes after Mr Moon's party put in place a law that took effect in January mandating prison terms for people spreading falsehoods about pro-democracy rallies in Gwangju in the 1980s. The protests were crushed with deadly force, which prompted criticism from historians who saw the measure as an excessive use of authority.

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