The Ministry of Justice released the instructions on reporting criminal cases on Wednesday. They are so backwards and undemocratic that it is difficult to believe that they were drawn up by a democratic government in 2019. The new instructions will allow prosecutors to ban any media coverage of ongoing cases and to restrict access of journalists who published misinformation to the prosecutor’s office for damaging the reputation of those involved in the case. They will also enable the government to determine what is misinformation, an appalling idea that did not exist even under the rule of authoritarian governments.
Under the new instructions, the prosecution cannot deliver press releases about an ongoing case unless they need to respond to misinformation, and prosecutors and investigators cannot be in contact with the media including journalists. This means journalists should write only what is given to them by the prosecution, which will undermine their role as a monitor, meaning there will be no one to check if prosecutors are conducting an investigation in favor of a “living power” behind closed doors.
Another poison pill is an article that allows an investigator in charge to determine arbitrarily what is misinformation, based on which they can stop journalists from producing and sharing information. If the prosecutor is given the power to make the judgment with no clear criteria, it is highly likely that they will use it to stop unfavorable news stories from being published. This article can also be abused by people with power or certain political parties that try to cover the truth. There is also the issue of who will take responsibility when the information that was believed to be inaccurate turns out to be true. In a fair number of cases, the investigation results published by prosecutors have been overruled by the court. What happens if the prosecution’s press releases are the only source of truth for journalists and that information turns out to be not true?
If limiting freedom of speech and people’s right to know, which are given by the constitution, is absolutely needed, it should be done according to the laws established by the National Assembly, not to the Justice Ministry’s instructions. The new instructions do not sit very well with the current government’s emphasis on communicating with the people either. What is also worrying is that the moves of the ministry, which consists mostly of lawyers, can affect other government departments and agencies.
The abrupt announcement of the new rigid conservative instructions came after President Moon ordered Vice Minister of Justice Kim O-su to formulate a prosecution reform plan by the end of the month at the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae on Oct. 16. President Moon needs to instantly scrap the instructions and apologize to the public.