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South Korea could investigate TV station for reporting on Yoon Suk-yeol’s hot-mic gaffe

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 28/09/2022 Park Chan-kyong
  • Ruling party to ask prosecution authorities to begin criminal investigation into MBC TV head Park Sung-je and three others, who are accused of defaming the president
  • Controversy shines spotlight on press freedom in South Korea, after Yoon accused media of putting out 'false report'

South Korea's ruling conservatives on Wednesday said they would file complaints against a major TV station after it reported on President Yoon Suk-yeol's purported use of profanity during a recent trip to the United States.

The ruling People Power Party said it would ask prosecution authorities to launch a criminal investigation into MBC TV head Park Sung-je and three others, accusing them of defaming the president.

"They intentionally spread false information and defamed the president," the party said.

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Yoon, a former prosecutor-general, enjoys the strong support of the country's prosecutors.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol (centre) with US President Joe Biden (left) on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meetings last week. Photo: EPA-EFE © Provided by South China Morning Post South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol (centre) with US President Joe Biden (left) on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meetings last week. Photo: EPA-EFE

The controversy has also shone a spotlight on press freedom in South Korea after the party on Tuesday launched a task force to investigate the "falsified" reporting by MBC, following reports the station was defaming the president.

Millions of Koreans repeatedly watched video clips of Yoon using what seemed to be foul language while talking to his aides and top diplomats, following a brief chat with US President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meetings last week.

Although the audio of the hot mic incident was unclear, Yoon could be heard using an expletive to describe US Congressmen. He reportedly said their failure to pass a US$6 billion contribution to the Global Fund to fight AIDS and other diseases would be "too darn embarrassing for Biden".

MBC and other media aired the clip, which swiftly went viral. Yoon's presidential office belatedly denied he made any disparaging remarks aimed at Congress or Biden, saying Yoon was expressing concern South Korea's opposition-controlled National Assembly could reject his plans for a US$100 million contribution to the same fund.

Unionists of MBC TV chant slogans protesting against the ruling party lawmakers' visit to the broadcaster in Seoul on Wednesday. Photo: EPA-EFE © Provided by South China Morning Post Unionists of MBC TV chant slogans protesting against the ruling party lawmakers' visit to the broadcaster in Seoul on Wednesday. Photo: EPA-EFE

Six major press unions held an emergency press conference next to the presidential office on Tuesday to throw their weight behind MBC, after Yoon rebuked the media on Monday for "jeopardising [the] South Korea-US alliance" and accusing them of putting out "a false report".

"It is not the news media's responsibility to clarify what has happened. The president and his office must explain exactly what has happened," they said in a joint statement.

"The thing that harms national interests is the president's foul mouth that is as unpredictable as a rugby ball, not news media that reports on it."

Lawmaker Jeon Yong-gi of the liberal opposition Democratic Party of Korea likened the presidential office's denial of what Yoon said to the Chinese idiom "call a deer a horse", which describes the deliberate act of confusing truth with falsehoods to justify an action.

Yoon's foul-mouthed criticism of US goes viral in South Korea

MBC camera crew had caught the scene on tape and shared it with other media as a pool TV crew for the event. The clip was later aired with captions of the comments that included indecent words purportedly used by Yoon.

Noise-removed versions of the clip, which supposedly suggest what Yoon said matched the TV captions, later went viral.

The presidential office sent a letter on Monday to MBC, calling for detailed explanations on what the ruling party described as "distorted" reports that harmed national interests.

Replay Video

The letter demanded the company explain its grounds for determining Yoon had uttered foul words even though the audio was unclear, and asked whether MBC made efforts to check with the presidential office about what Yoon really said.

It also accused MBC of seeking to mislead the public by suggesting Yoon referred to the US Congress when he actually said gukhoe, which usually refers to the South Korean National Assembly.

MBC hit back, criticising the presidential office for bypassing institutional devices used to call for corrections.

"It is hard to tell whether this is a letter requesting information or a target letter from prosecutors," it said. "It is very regrettable and disconcerting because this can impose threats to press freedom."

South Korea's Yoon blames translation for furore over US hot-mic insult

Choi Jin, head of think tank the Institute of Presidential Leadership, said MBC had long been a source of complaints for the conservative ruling party due to what it viewed as "biased" reporting in favour of the liberal Democratic Party of Korea.

"The ruling camp finds it necessary to risk criticism over a possible breach of press freedom as this episode has become too big an issue, making headlines for several days and seriously damaging the president's image," he told This Week in Asia.

A recent survey commissioned by Straight News showed 70.8 per cent of respondents said Yoon should apologise for using foul words, while 27.9 per cent said he did not need to do so.

His approval rating fell to 27.7 per cent, down 3.7 per cent from three weeks earlier.

Former communications professor Lee E-jong of the Chonnam National University said the hot mic incident might have subsided with Yoon's apology.

"It is highly regrettable that the whole society should spend energy on such a gaffe at a time when this country faces daunting geopolitical and economic challenges," he said.

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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

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