South Korea: MBC network sued for defamation by ruling party

The ruling People Power Party (PPP) of the Republic of Korea has launched several intimidatory public and legal attacks against public broadcaster Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), accusing the outlet of misreporting President Yoon Suk-yeol’s remarks during a trip to New York. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) joins its affiliate, the Journalists Association of Korea (JAK), in condemning the censuring of MBC and other Korean media in a clear violation of press freedom.

Park Dae-chul (2nd L), lawmaker from South Korea's ruling People Power Party, speaks to the media as his party files a complaint against MBC TV with the prosecution at the Supreme Prosecutors' Office in Seoul on September 29, 2022. Credit: Jung Yeon-Je / AFP

Following a meeting with United States President Joe Biden, President Yoon was heard on a live microphone appearing to use offensive language in reference to US President Joe Biden’s ability to effectively pass legislation. Though the audio was obscured due to noise, MBC TV subtitles interpreted President Yoon’s remarks as, “If those [expletive] do not pass it in the [parliament], [Biden] will lose face.”

Following the broadcast, PPP representatives stated that MBC’s subtitles had unlawfully misrepresented the comments of President Yoon, claiming he was instead referring to pending legislation in the Republic of Korea’s National Assembly.

On September 26, PPP lawmakers announced they would pursue legal action against the public broadcaster and file complaints through the Press Arbitration Commission and the Korea Communications Standards Commission. Lawmakers alleged MBC’s reporting harmed the ‘national interest’, demanding the resignation of MBC CEO Park Sung-Je and an official apology. Later that day, a PPP-affiliated member of the Seoul Metropolitan Council filed an official police complaint accusing MBC editors, reporters and CEO Park Sung-Je of defaming the president

PPP officials also claimed MBC’s reporting constituted ‘fake news’, arguing that the public broadcaster damaged the Republic of Korea’s security and diplomatic standing and alleged a possible tie between MBC and the opposition Democratic Party.

On September 28, PPP lawmakers conducted a protest outside the Sangam offices of the MBC Network, holding a press conference while picketing and, on September 29, four people, including the president of MBC and the head of the press, were charged with defamation and other charges to the prosecution. The exercise was met with counter-protests, with journalists and media workers’ associations criticising the exercise as performative, intimidatory and an ‘excuse to take control of broadcasting’.

The press associations of five broadcasters in South Korea released a joint statement on September 30 criticising the actions of the president’s office as an attack on press freedom, highlighting the hypocrisy and dangerous legal precedent set by targeting one news outlet.

The JAK said: The Journalists Association of Korea strongly supports the efforts of journalists who faithfully practice the media's mandate of monitoring and criticizing power. In addition, it declares that it will fight strongly against the dishonest behaviour of the government and the ruling party, which are trying to cover the sky with the palm of their hand, and the offensive against the enemy.”

IFJ General Secretary, Anthony Bellanger, said: “Suing the media for defamation is a typical example of intimidation. President Yoon should be held accountable for what he reportedly said and not use journalists as an excuse to cover up for him.”

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The IFJ represents more than 600,000 journalists in 140 countries

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