Allies of President Yoon Suk Yeol are attacking what they see as an existential threat to South Korea, and they are mincing few words. The head of Mr. Yoon’s party has called for the death sentence for a case of “high treason.” The culture ministry has vowed to root out what it called an “organized and dirty” conspiracy to undermine the country’s democracy.
In this case, the accused is not a foreign spy, but a Korean news outlet that has published articles critical of Mr. Yoon and his government.
The president, a former prosecutor, is turning to lawsuits, state regulators and criminal investigations to clamp down on speech that he calls disinformation, efforts that have largely been aimed at news organizations. Since Mr. Yoon was elected last year, the police and prosecutors have repeatedly raided the homes and newsrooms of journalists whom his office has accused of spreading “fake news.”
Some South Koreans accuse Mr. Yoon of repurposing the expression as justification for defamation suits and to mobilize prosecutors and regulators to threaten penalties and criminal investigations. Many are exasperated that their leader has adopted the phrase, a rallying cry for strongmen around the world that is also further dividing an increasingly polarized electorate at home.
South Koreans are proud of the vibrant democracy and free press they won after decades of military dictatorship, and, more recently, of their country’s growing soft-power influence.
Mr. Yoon may be best known overseas for aligning his country more closely with the United States — and for his rendition of “American Pie” at the White House. He espouses “freedom” in speeches, but his 18-month-old presidency has been characterized by a near-constant clash with the opposition and fears of censorship and democratic backsliding.
Leaders of the democratic world have all grappled with how to counter the corrosive effects of disinformation online. But Mr. Yoon’s critics, including the liberal opposition and journalists’ associations, accuse him of suppressing speech in the name of fighting disinformation. In a survey this year, a majority of local journalists said they felt press freedom was regressing under Mr. Yoon.
“It’s dangerous to leave it to the government to decide what fake news is,” said Pae Jung Kun, a journalism professor at Sookmyung Women’s University in Seoul. “It undermines the news media’s ability to hold the government to account.”
Mr. Yoon’s crackdown intensified in September, when his office singled out an independent news organization for a report it published last year.
Prosecutors ransacked the homes and offices of two reporters from Newstapa, which ran the article. Journalists from other outlets were also targeted, their cellphones and files confiscated to collect criminal evidence of defamation. The authorities have rarely taken such measures since South Korea democratized in the 1990s, though that has changed under Mr. Yoon. Government regulators fined three cable and TV channels that had picked up the Newstapa article, also accusing them of spreading “fake news.”
The article that earned Newstapa the ire of Mr. Yoon was published three days before his election, in March 2022. It described an allegation that Mr. Yoon, as a prosecutor in 2011, had decided not to indict Cho Woo-hyung, a man involved in a banking and real-estate scandal, because of lobbying by a prosecutor turned lawyer. Mr. Yoon denied the claim during presidential debates and still does.
Other news organizations had reported on the controversy before. But Newstapa acquired an audio file of a conversation between one of its freelance researchers and Kim Man-bae, a former journalist and a key figure in the scandal, who claimed that he had introduced Mr. Cho to the lawyer, who then used his influence with Mr. Yoon to get the case against Mr. Cho dropped. Newstapa said the freelancer was not on assignment when the conversation took place in 2021 and provided the audio only days before the vote.
After Mr. Yoon was elected, the Newstapa article was largely forgotten — until prosecutors raided the freelancer’s home in September, accusing him of taking $122,000 in bribes from Mr. Kim. The freelancer and Mr. Kim both denied bribery, and Newstapa said it was not aware of any financial transactions between the two when it published the article. But it stood by the decision to report the contents of the audio file and accused the president of trying to silence an outlet that refused to toe his line.
Mr. Yoon’s justice minister demanded accountability and called for a thorough investigation. The Korea Communications Standards Commission, which typically blocks websites featuring gambling, pornography or North Korean propaganda, said it intended to screen all online media to eliminate “fake news” after its new chairman, a Yoon appointee, called it “a clear and present danger.”
“If we don’t stop the spread of fake news,” Mr. Yoon told his staff in September, “it will threaten free democracy and the market economy built on it.”
Newstapa was started in 2012 by journalists disgruntled with what they viewed as the collusion of politics, business and the news media. South Korea’s democracy appears rollicking, but its news organizations have long suffered low public trust, as people viewed them as kowtowing to corporate interests and pandering to partisan bias. Newstapa depends on donations to support its staff of 50 and has published investigative reports critical of South Korea’s elites, including big businesses and prosecutors.
“We have been a thorn in the eye for Yoon and prosecutors,” said Sim In-bo, a director of content at Newstapa.
Analysts said the outlet had exposed itself to criticism by running an unsubstantiated allegation so close to a hotly contested election. (Mr. Yoon won by the thinnest margin of any free presidential election in South Korea.) But they also called the government’s response over the top.
“President Yoon, a prosecutor all his life with little experience in politics, has developed a narrow and stern political perspective,” said Kang Won-taek, a political science professor at Seoul National University. “He still acts like a prosecutor. What should be resolved through the political process is taken to law.”
Mr. Yoon started as a media-friendly president. He was the first South Korean leader to allow journalists to ask questions when he arrived for work in the morning. But that openness did not last long.
After the South Korean broadcaster MBC published what it called a hot-mic clip of the president using an expletive to describe American lawmakers last year, he adopted a more hostile stance. Two months later, the next time Mr. Yoon traveled overseas, he banned MBC reporters from his presidential plane. The organization’s “fake news” report, he said, was a “malicious” attempt to create a rift in the alliance with Washington.
He also stopped taking questions in the morning.
In South Korea, conservatives and their rivals have both been accused of cracking down on critical news reports when they are in power. When the liberal opposition was in office, it also called fake news “a public enemy” and tried to introduce legislation that would allow hefty financial penalties. The attempt foundered after conservatives pushed back, calling it a “dictatorial” effort to muzzle unfriendly news outlets.
Under Mr. Yoon, the two sides swapped stances. The difference is that the conservative government, rather than trying to introduce a new law, is resorting to an old weapon.
“The government and public figures used libel and slander laws, which broadly define and criminalize defamation, to restrict public discussion and harass, intimidate or censor private and media expression,” the U.S. State Department said in its annual human rights report on South Korea in March.
Convictions on defamation charges in South Korea, which are based on whether what was said was “in the public interest” and not on its veracity, can result in fines or up to seven years’ imprisonment.
Mr. Yoon’s office said it had to take legal action to prevent disinformation from spreading and being accepted as fact. But the government’s definition of fake news has raised questions about how to draw lines between disinformation and free speech.
The Foreign Ministry sued MBC after it refused to retract its hot-mic report. Since Mr. Yoon took office, the police have repeatedly raided the offices and homes of reporters and producers at The Tamsa, a YouTube channel that reported on corruption allegations involving Mr. Yoon, his wife, his mother-in-law (who is in prison for forgery) and his justice minister. And in September, prosecutors raided the office of JTBC, a cable channel that reported the same allegation against Mr. Yoon as Newstapa. The authorities have searched the homes or offices of four other journalists who reported similar claims before the election.
South Koreans, distrustful of traditional media, have increasingly migrated to YouTube and other online sources for news. These platforms wielded huge influence during the last presidential election, spreading openly partisan views.
“The so-called new media outlets are more aggressive in gathering and distributing facts on key issues of the moment than traditional media,” said Ahn Soo-chan, a journalism professor at Semyung University. “And political power becomes more aggressive in trying to control them.”