Is the ‘Hot Mic Incident’ Really About Freedom of the Press?

Is the ‘Hot Mic Incident’ Really About Freedom of the Press?

The creation and dissemination of fake news endanger freedom and democracy.

While stressing the importance of freedom, President Yoon Suk-yeol’s office inquired about the process by which a broadcasting company reported fake news regarding the so-called “hot mic incident.” Some have accused the inquiry of being a contradiction. While the opposition party was mainly behind the accusation, there have been a number of news outlets that seem to agree that the presidential office’s inquiry is a form of government-issued “press guidelines aimed at preventing criticisms of the ruling party” and that this constitutes an act of suppression against the press. Citing press guidelines issued during Korea’s military rule to criticize the Yoon administration’s inquiry is highly inappropriate in a modern democratic society such as Korea and can only be considered a political ploy. In order to seriously examine this matter, two questions must be answered. The first question is whether the dissemination of fake news can be considered part of the freedom of the press. The other question is whether the presidential office’s questionnaire to the broadcasting company is comparable to the previous administration’s acts of suppression against the press.

First, the broadcasting company’s reporting of the incident has aroused questions about its ability to report facts given that it failed to adhere to the due process required of news journalism.

The recording of Yoon does not accurately capture his voice, which is muddled by background noises and, therefore, difficult to decipher. As such, this was an incident that desperately needed a fact-checking process. When members of the press conduct reports involving the president that require a fact-check, they usually follow a common process of consultation with official channels such as the president’s spokesperson. In other words, there is a customary practice by the press to hold on to reports that require fact-checking by the president’s office and to report only if the official channels remain unresponsive or deny the report. Even then, the press is expected to relay the presidential office’s official position or include in its report that “a representative of the president’s office has declined to comment.” One can still make the argument that a report may be published without confirmation by the president’s office if it serves the benefit of the public.

However, the broadcasting company first reported the incident by unilaterally determining that a specific word (“Biden”) was uttered by President Yoon and including that word in the subtitle even though the recording was inaudible. This reporting led to a serious situation where an unconfirmed piece of information became a fait accompli. As a result, this incident has now become a domestic political issue and has damaged Korea’s international reputation. The broadcasting company went on to add the term “United States” in its subtitle even though the president did not mention the country. This is further evidence that leads us to speculate that the reporting was ill-intentioned from the very start.

Instead of adding unconfirmed subtitles, the broadcasting company should have included a question mark in order to afford its viewers room for interpretation. It should have included an additional explanation that the audio was inaudible. The broadcasting company failed to adhere to the customary due process of journalism and mislead its viewers to believe that  Yoon had somehow criticized the United States. This type of reporting distorts the truth. In the end, it was an act of reporting that created fake news for political purposes. Can we then consider the propagation of fake news to be covered as part of freedom of the press? Just for reference, Yoon used the term “Kuk-hoe,” a term used by Koreans to refer to their National Assembly. If he had intended to refer to the United States legislative branches, he would have used the terms, “Ui-hoe” (U.S. Congress), “Sang-won” (Upper House), or “Ha-won” (Lower House).

The second question is whether the presidential office’s inquiry into the dissemination of fake news is considered an act of suppression against the press even though the broadcasting company has no legal obligation to respond to it. If we want to look at acts of government suppression against the press, we need not look further than the past five years under the previous administration of Moon Jae-in.

Immediately following its inauguration, the Moon administration sought to dominate the board meeting of KBS, a public broadcasting service, by trying to overhaul the board members. To do so, it had to remove a board member recommended by the opposition party. This board member, Kang Kyu-hyung, went through a thorough review process, after which he was dismissed for a minor incident involving the use of a corporate card. No penalty was leveled against another board member, who faced a far bigger charge involving the inappropriate use of a corporate card. Kang then filed a lawsuit to nullify his dismissal from the KBS board. Even though he eventually won the lawsuit, the Moon administration was no longer in office and the Yoon administration now has to pay all of his litigation expenses using the national budget.

There are other examples. In September, prosecutors launched an investigation into the Korea Communications Commission (KCC) after the Board of Audit and Inspection raised suspicion that certain KCC review panel members deliberately gave a lower “fairness” score to TV Chosun during the license renewal process in 2020. KCC, an organization that is tasked with maintaining its independence and neutrality, lost sight of its mission, became an agent of the ruling government, and tried to close down a media outlet that did not succumb to power and authority. This is an act of suppression against the press.

Yoon has already explained that his statement was not referring to the U.S. Congress. If the broadcasting company in question is a normal, functioning media company, it should admit to its erroneous reporting and claim responsibility for disseminating fake news.

A democracy values its citizens’ freedom more than anything else. During his inauguration speech, Yoon stressed the value of freedom. Recently, he spoke about “freedom and solidarity” during a speech at the UN General Assembly. The creation and dissemination of fake news endanger such freedom and democracy. Anyone who argues that Yoon has contradicted himself on the values of freedom by raising questions about a certain media company’s professional and journalistic integrity is ignoring the fact that this reporting was politically initiated rather than based on professional journalism.

Heeseok Yoon served as a spokesperson of PPP (People’s Power Party) for a year and a spokesperson of the campaign headquarters of PPP for the 2022 Presidential Election. He received a master’s degree in Business Administration from Indiana University and a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Seoul University.

Image: Reuters.