Recently, a friend approached me about the idea of writing a column for a South Korean newspaper. I declined on the basis that I’m already overtaxed by the burden of writing this blog, but perhaps I should have added “the defense of personal jurisdiction” as another reason:
In his Christmas Day 2009 column for the Korea Times, Michael Breen decided to lampoon such national newsmakers as President Lee Myung-bak and the pop idol Rain.
Headlined “What People Got for Christmas,” the English-language column also poked fun at global technology giant Samsung Electronics, referring to past bribery scandals as well as perceptions that its leaders are arrogant. [….]
Breen’s column ran as local media reported that President Lee would soon pardon Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-hee on a 2008 conviction for tax evasion. Chairman Lee, 68, had already received a federal pardon in the 1990s on a conviction for bribing two former presidents while he was with the firm.
On Dec. 29, the day of Lee’s pardon, Samsung sued the freelance columnist, the newspaper and its top editor for $1 million, claiming damage to its reputation and potential earnings. After the Korea Times ran clarifications, the newspaper and its editor were dropped from the suit.
And people wonder why corporate corruption is so common in South Korea. I guess it just goes to show that you never know what you’re not reading:
“In South Korea, it’s considered taboo to criticize the chaebols,” said Kim Ky-won, professor of economics at Korea National Open University. “They hold very close to absolute power.”
Most critical stories run in smaller media less dependent on ads from big companies. Major media reports are mostly limited to breaking news of prosecutions of chaebol leaders but seldom probe deeper, critics say.
“Samsung has financial power over the press. They’re their own sanctuary where no one can intervene or criticize them,” said Kim Keon-ho, an official at the Citizens’ Coalition for Economic Justice.
With special guest appearance by Brendon Carr:
“In South Korea, injury to one’s reputation is the key element, not the truth,” he said. “The fact that a statement is true is not an absolute defense. Satire is not a defense. That’s different from the American definition. America is a free speech society, whereas Korea is not. It has historically been a ‘sit down and shut up’ society.”
Punishment here is tougher if the statement is not true. “But you’re punished in all cases for revealing things that injure someone’s reputation,” Carr said. “If you say, ‘Look out for Jim. He’s a crook. He swindled me,’ that’s a crime in South Korea. And people use it. Defamation may be the No. 1 criminal complaint here.”
Suddenly, Robert Koehler’s hypervigilance about libel suits doesn’t seem so hypervigilant. I wonder if a South Korean judge or lawyer (or Samsung) can now sue Mr. Carr. I wonder where this stops. I especially wonder if any of the many South Korean plaintiffs I’ve criticized or ridiculed would try to assert personal jurisdiction over a U.S.-based blog whose only footprint in Korea is the fact of not being blocked there. Yet.
I’ve always enjoyed Mr. Breen’s writing, even if I often disagree with his views. I find it tasteless of Samsung to persecute him for satirizing press reports that it paid bribes to prosecutors. I find it especially tasteless that my profession is being misused to censor public criticism and suppress freedom of speech notwithstanding the truth of the matter asserted. As a small gesture of solidarity with Mr. Breen, whom I’ve never met, here are some links to other people’s reports on what the scandal is all about, just in case you didn’t really know, either.
* Former Samsung lawyer “Kim Yong-chul claimed that Samsung has a large network of government officials, politicians, journalists and academics in its pay,” a network that doesn’t include one presidential aide who photographed and then refused a W5 million “holiday gift.”
* This NYT blog post notes that Mr. Kim even managed to get Catholic priests to act as his mouthpieces. That’s some trick.
* Someone alleged that Samsung had also paid off Roh Moo Hyun.
If you ask me, the suppression of legitimate criticism is a greater scandal than any of this. Admittedly, I wasn’t a major consumer of Samsung products before this, but I sure as hell won’t be one now.