On April 24, Munhwa Broadcasting System (MBC) aired a black-and-white photo of Cho Doo-soon on their television programme. Cho is a sexual assault criminal who is going to be released from prison in December 2020. After this was broadcasted, the public questioned whether the current law regarding personal information of criminals was actually effective. They argued that numerous defects exist in the actual application of the law and the criminals’ personal information management system.
How Is the Korean Media Treating Criminals?
Principally speaking, there are no regulations governing the revelation of criminals’ personal information. Up until the early 2000s, most criminals’ appearances were broadcasted. In 2004, however, a first-class murderer, Yoo Yeong-cheol claimed that his human rights was being violated as the media broadcasted his face without asking for his consent. “Because of this incident, the police could not help but to cover his face with a mask and towel in front of the press,” said Gwon Sun-taek, an Activist of People’s Coalition for Media Reform. This led to the creation of ‘Operation Guide for Police Officers to Protect Human Rights of Suspects and Criminals’ in 2005, and it became the norm to mask the suspects or criminals at the press line.
In 2009, two of the Korean press, Chosun llbo and Joongang Ilbo decided to reveal the face of Gang Ho-sun, a first-class murderer, on the first page of their newspaper. Emphasising the right to know of the people and the right to protect themselves from such criminals, both newspapers criticised the unimportance and ineffectiveness of laws which limit the publication of criminals’ personal information.
“Until now, there are no guidelines among the press that regulates information disclosure,” said Gwon. Three major terrestrial broadcasting systems – KBS, MBC, SBS – and four comprehensive channels and many more media centres do not have their own concrete rules regarding the disclosure of criminals’ personal information. Some implement cost-benefit analysis when deciding disclosure and in a few cases, journalists choose to write stimulating articles to make people feel intrigued.
What Hinders the Disclosure of Criminals’ Personal Information?
Article 8 (Protection of Victims from Publication) of the Act on Special Cases Concerning the Punishment of Specific Violent Crimes denotes the disclosure of factors including face, name, and address of the criminal suspects. Aforementioned personal information may be disclosed, if all of the following requirements are satisfied: (1) It shall be a specific violent crime(s) which has been committed in a cruel way and has brought material damage; (2) Sufficient evidence shall exist to prove that the criminal suspect has committed such crime(s); (3) Disclosure shall be required for public good only, such as the guarantee of the people's right to know, the prevention of recidivism by a criminal suspect and the prevention of crime; (4) A criminal suspect shall not be a juvenile. When the four prerequisites are satisifed with the case, the Deliberation Committee adjudicates whether it is necessary to disclose the criminals' personal infroamtion in question.
When it comes to the police’s press policy, Article 126 (Publication of Facts of Suspected Crime) could possibly affect the publication of person linformation to the public. The article says: ‘A person who, in performance or supervision of, or in assistance, functions involving prosecution, police, or other activities concerning investigation of crimes, makes public, before request for public trial, the facts of a suspected crime which have come to his knowledge during the performance of his duties, shall be punished by imprisonment for not more than three years, or suspension of qualifications for not more than five years.’ According to Oh Won-chan, a Judge of the Uijeongbu District Court, police or other jurisdictional organisations might be hesitant to disclose the information with certainty while punishment is still possible. Furthermore, a person who thinks he or she is defamed due to publication can file a civil suit against the press. Since such a legal case is time and resource consuming, Judge Oh Won-chan says that “a number of reporters or journalists are hesitant when delivering crime cases or criminals’ personal information.”
Overseas Cases: Japan and the United States
There is no certain rule about the disclosure of personal information of criminals in Korea. Digital and paper news media broadcast this information without concrete regulations; armed with only an internal code of ethics existing within the groups themselves.
Meanwhile, Japanese broadcasting systems have their own guidelines. The principle is that personal information of criminals should be publicly known. For example, the Japanese Broadcasting Corporation (NHK)’s guideline says: ‘There is no given rule about such criminal cases but the NHK itself decides the press coverage’. The corporation repeatedly emphasises broadcasting criminals’ personal information to the extent where the NHK can be held responsible.
In the United States, a criminal’s personal information is treated as public property. Therefore, even a suspect is photographed, and the photo will be uploaded to the police intranet. This is irrelevant to the fact of prosecution or innocence. With the help of Megan’s Law in 1996, the system was altered so that it would provide a child sex offender’s face and home address to the public, when the criminal was released from imprisonment.
Although these countries’ systems have their own identities, Gwon said, “We do not have to necessarily follow their rules. What kind of a system should be applied is not a matter of an international norm but is an independent decision of individual nations.” Additionally, she accentuated the importance of internal discussion regarding the way to deliver the message: “Does the media really need to wait for the government’s regulations? They are autonomous organisations, with capacities to freely decide.”
A More Mature Social Discussion Is Needed
At some point, people need to think in a careful manner about how to divulge criminals’ personal information. When their identities are revealed to the public, not only will the criminal be blamed but their family will also become targets. A presumption of innocence is protected under the Korean Constitution. “The acquittal rate in criminal trials is around 3%, which means three out of a hundred are saved after verdicts. A report branding a person as a criminal can create detrimental damage with lasting harm,” Oh said.
While a survey from a radio broadcast ‘Kim Hyun-jeong’s News Show’ of CBS signifies that 88% of respondents answered positively to a question asking whether it was right of MBC to reveal Cho Doo-soon’s face. Here, we can see that there are still ongoing debates regarding the legality and propriety of personal information disclosure. “A systemic change could be the way to resolve such debates,” said Kwon.
It is important to solve the concurrent issues immediately, but what is also important is to prevent such systemic failures from happening. “Continuous reflections on the legal and the administration mechanism are necessary,” Kwon emphasised. While adding that the administrative system should not be affected too much by people’s opinion courts, Kwon also said: “People should understand that disclosing the personal information of criminals and protecting victims of a criminal action is not on the same line.”