SEOUL — President Moon Jae-in and his Democratic Party in South Korea have spent months vowing to stamp out what they have called fake news in the media. But lawmakers had to postpone a vote on a new bill this week when they encountered a problem: no one can agree on exactly how to do it.
Mr. Moon’s party, which controls a majority in the Parliament, submitted the bill in August, touting it as one of the last major reforms of his administration before his five-year term ends in May. The bill triggered an outcry from domestic media and international rights groups that warned it would discourage journalists from investigating corruption scandals and would have a chilling effect on press freedoms.
The proliferation of unverified news reports is not unique to South Korea. As more people consume news online, often taking what they find on social media to be truthful and reliable, the problem of misinformation has become global, deepening political divides and complicating efforts to preserve election integrity and fight the pandemic. But government attempts to stem the flow of misinformation have raised questions about free speech, censorship and democratic backsliding.
Hardly a day passes without newspapers and social media accounts in South Korea carrying poorly sourced reports of corruption that candidates in next year’s presidential race have called “fake news.” The fight intensified after Cho Kuk, a key ally of Mr. Moon, resigned as justice minister in 2019 amid allegations of ethical lapses and financial wrongdoing by his family. The scandal rocked Mr. Moon’s administration, and Mr. Cho’s supporters and critics heatedly accused each other of spreading false information to influence public opinion.
Mr. Moon said last week that the country needed a stronger measure to fight the “fake news and false reporting that has caused much harm to the state and individuals.” He then began distancing himself from the bill after concerns were raised at home and abroad.
Journalists’ unions in South Korea, which are usually sympathetic toward Mr. Moon’s liberal government, have criticized the bill. The main conservative opposition, the People Power Party, called it a “dictatorial” attempt by Mr. Moon’s government to muzzle unfriendly media.
Domestic media and international rights groups have also spoken out against it, warning that the bill’s fuzzy definitions of “untrue reports,” “harm” and malicious “intent” would lead to self-censorship among journalists and limit the publication of unpopular and minority opinions.
Mr. Moon’s party has pushed a slate of recent bills aimed at stamping out misinformation, including false narratives about sensitive historical topics. Some of the bills have already become law.
The bill that was postponed this week targeted print, online and broadcast news media. It proposed a revision to South Korea’s Press Arbitration Act that would allow local courts to impose punitive damages on media outlets that publish false news “by intent or through grave negligence” or that infringes on personal rights, causes property damage or inflicts psychological distress.
The bill called for punitive damages that amount to up to five times the actual loss caused by the false news report. Mr. Moon’s party hoped the hefty financial penalties would force media outlets to take the fact-checking process more seriously.
“Disproportionate sanctions such as heavy fines can have a significant chilling effect on freedom of expression in South Korea, which is already constrained by criminal defamation laws that should be abolished,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
Speaking to journalists last week, Irene Khan, the United Nations special rapporteur for freedom of expression and opinion, voiced concerns that the amendment vaguely defined “fake news” and that offenders would face a “disproportionate” penalty.
On Tuesday night, Mr. Moon’s party recognized that the bill was too risky to pass as it was. Lawmakers agreed to shelve the bill and allow the opposing parties to continue to negotiate until the end of the year.
Even before the new bill had been introduced, victims of false news reports in South Korea were able to seek remedies, including corrections and compensation. They could also sue news organizations for defamation, which is a criminal offense in the country. Supporters of the new bill said that the financial penalties in South Korea had been too small.
Between 2009 and 2018, 2,220 civil lawsuits were filed seeking compensation over false news. Less than 40 percent of them resulted in financial settlements, which averaged $16,600, according to data from the country’s Press Arbitration Commission. Nearly half of the victims who won settlements were paid $4,260 or less.
In a survey last year by Media Today, an online news publication, four-fifths of the 1,000 respondents supported imposing punitive damages against media outlets for publishing misinformation.
News organizations have complained that the new bill will allow courts to take an organization’s revenue into account when awarding damages, which means bigger and more influential mainstream broadcasters and newspapers with the resources to do investigative work would likely face the most severe damages.
Mr. Moon’s governing camp has been in an acrimonious relationship with South Korea’s largest newspapers for some time. The newspapers, which are all conservative, have been highly critical of the policies and scandals surrounding Mr. Moon’s administration.
On Tuesday, the governing party swore that it has not given up on severe punitive damages for publishing misinformation.
“We can no longer pretend that there is nothing wrong when irresponsible news reporting drives businesses to bankruptcy and ruins the lives and reputation of individuals,” Song Young-gil, head of the party, said in August. He said likening the bill to “gagging the press” was tantamount to “demanding the right to publish fake and manipulated news.”