A leader in communication technologies, the Republic of Korea (South Korea) is a liberal democracy which respects media freedom and pluralism, although tradition and business interests often prevent journalists from fulfilling their role as watchdogs.
South Korea has a rich media landscape with over 400 broadcasters and 600 dailies. Top national newspapers ranked by size are Chosun, JoongAng, Dong-A (conservative), Hankyoreh, Kyunghyang Shinmun (liberal), and Hankook (centrist). Although television remains popular, in recent years, the internet has become the main source of information. Many internet users consume news through information portals such as Naver, while video platforms such as YouTube are becoming increasingly popular.
Conservative newspapers clearly dominate the South Korean print media, but the broadcasting sector, dominated by the public Korean Broadcasting System (KBS), offers more diversity. Regulations give the government the upper hand in the appointment of public broadcasters’ senior management, which can pose a threat to their editorial independence.
South Korean legislation on freedom of information is in line with international standards, but defamation is still in theory punishable by seven years in prison, which can lead media outlets to omit key details of stories, such as the names of individuals and companies. Journalists accused of violating the National Security Act for the dissemination of sensitive information, especially if it involves North Korea, can also face up to seven years in prison.
Although South Korean reporters benefit from a relatively independent editorial environment, their company revenue depends heavily on advertising, which can influence their editorial line. A 2021 Korean Press Foundation survey found that more than 60% of journalists viewed advertisers as a threat to press freedom. The acquisition of a growing number of media outlets by companies from other industries also poses a threat due to possible conflicts of interest.
South Korean news outlets are confronted by pressure from politicians, government officials, and business conglomerates. According to a 2020 analysis by the Korean Press Arbitration Commission, media litigation has been steadily increasing over the past decade. A 2018 report by Korea Press foundation, based on 301 reporters’ responses to a survey, highlights that 27.6% of the respondents have been sued for their reporting, in particular for 'defamation' (78.3%). Almost a third of the plaintiffs are politicians and high-profile government officials (29%).
While journalists generally work under satisfactory conditions, they are sometimes victims of online harassment, a practice against which they have little protection. More than 30% of journalists who took part in the 2021 Korean Press Foundation survey said they have been victims of harassment in relation to their duty as journalists. Harassment most commonly takes place via phone calls, texts and emails, while comments by internet trolls and malicious legal actions are also prominent.