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Positive and Negative Media Reports

Posted March. 05, 2010 09:29,   


Politicians and public officials are naturally drawn to media reports. This is because the content of such reports affects their popularity and image, and sometimes shortens their political lives. As a result, public officials can take a selfish attitude toward the media. When reports are favorable to them, they feel grateful but instantly turn hostile if the reports are negative. Regardless of the facts, government officials frequently charge the media with defamation and sue for damages.

Judge Song Byeong-ho of the Seoul Southern District Court sounded an alarm against such a practice yesterday with his ruling. Experts say his ruling reflects a deep understanding of what is happening between the media and public officials. Song said, “If public officials pressure the media when it makes negative reports on them by filing lawsuits, while enjoying the benefits of positive media reports, this will weaken the media and ultimately undermining national democracy.” This situation is more prominent for powerful politicians. The lawmaker who lost the case, a member of the main opposition Democratic Party, held important posts under the former government and is one of the party’s leading members.

The lawmaker sued a broadcast network for 100 million won (87,260 U.S. dollars) in damages, claiming it made a false report on him in 2008. The broadcaster said the lawmaker allegedly received 30 million won (26,200 dollars) from a private school foundation. The gist of the ruling can be summed up as follows: if a report is made for the sake of the public good and the media company has a reasonable reason to believe that the report is true, this does not constitute libel. The reputation of a public official is not a value protected by him or her, but something determined by the public according to that person’s actions.

U.S. courts have long applied the concept of “actual malice” when dealing with libel suits filed by public officials. In the New York Times vs. Sullivan case in 1960, the U.S. Supreme Court said in a historic ruling, “As long as the press has an "absence of malice," public officials are barred from recovering damages for the publication of false statements about them.” This concept, however, cannot be used in the libel case against the staff of the MBC TV news magazine “PD Notebook,” who were found not guilty last month. Their actual malice to shake the government has already been proven in a civil court.

Editorial Writer Yook Jeong-soo (sooya@donga.com)