“PD Notebook” Facing Legal Action

January 21st, 2008 · Health and Environment · 26 comments

On April 29th the MBC program PD수첩, which goes by various English names including “PD Notebook” and “PD Diary” (the PD stands for “producer”), broadcast a story falsely claiming that an American woman had died from eating beef infected with mad cow disease. They took a statement from the woman’s mother and deliberately mistranslated it — something we have seen at other times in the beef brouhaha. The Chosun Ilbo enjoyed raking them over the coals in English and in Korean. And the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries is now saying it will take legal action against MBC.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries has requested the Supreme Public Prosecutor’s Office (대검찰청) to open a slander investigation of the producers of the MC program “PD Notebook”.

The Ministry announced this in a press release on the 20th, following its judgment that an April 29th broadcast of “PD Notebook” was distorted and exaggerated and that it was one of the main causes of the current conflicted situation.

The Ministry had already announced it would seek legal action in an official note released on the 17th.

Explaining the reasons for this action the Ministry said, “a clear judgment on the truth or falsehood of the report must be made in the public sphere.”

According to the press release the Ministry believes that producers of the episode, titled “긴급취재! 미국산 쇠고기, 광우병에서 안전한가?”, distorted the facts through intentional mistranslation of English as well as selective editing, based it on only unsupported hypotheses and one-sided assertions, and used only that scientific evidence which supported them. Because of this, the Ministry explained, viewers came to believe that American beef and mad cow disease were frightful.

There was powerful criticism of the program. “The entire program failed to accurately reflect the Ministry’s investigations of the safety level of American beef. Confidence in the government has been fatally damaged by disparagement of its efforts to ensure the safety of food products from the United States and the cabinet ministers and others who negotiated the agreement have been directly slandered.”

The main points that the Ministry wishes to have investigated are: intentionally distorted reports about the death from Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease of Aretha Vinson, an American woman; intentionally distorted reports claiming that “downer cows” in a film had mad cow disease; false reports that mad cow disease could be contracted from ramen soup, medicine, and cosmetics; and reports accusing the Ministry of not understanding the situation in the United States and then, after learning about it, covering up the facts in order to aid the importation process.

This does make me a little uncomfortable — as much as MBC is clearly at fault here, I don’t think it’s ok for the government to go after the press like this. I wouldn’t want to see my government going after 9/11 truthers, let alone any serious dissenters like say, Physicians for Human Rights. Anyway, here is the Chosun’s first Korean-language report debunking the program’s claims with data from the American Centers for Disease Control.

Update: Prosecutors in Seoul have officially opened their investigation.

26 comments

  • I dont know, if a hagwon can sue a former teacher for slander for posting negative, but true, experiences on an internet bulletin board because it falls under the Korean slander law that protects business — then why cant the government sue a news organization for false reports? i would say that numerous businesses and Korean trade has been hurt by the furor raised over the intentionally misleading statements made by MBC. A professional news organization should be held accountable to present a true representation, well, at least verify the facts of the story, before releasing it to the public.

    Anonymous · June 21st, 2008 at 12:59 PM

  • Yes, but MBC has been held accountable by other media like the Chosun Ilbo. Seeing the legal system punish press that it doesn’t like makes me queasy. President Roh went after the conservative media with selective audits and other tactics. Now President Lee is going after the liberal media. This is something you don’t see much of in other free countries.

    Korea Beat · June 21st, 2008 at 1:51 PM

  • True, other news organizations have spoken out about the reports and, yes, other free countries have much more liberal speech laws. However, I was only pointing out that, in Korea, if a lowly teacher can be sued for speaking freely on a public forum — then why can’t a news organization be sued under the same laws for intentionally spreading false information that directly affects the trade relationships of the country and its businesses? Don’t you think a professional information service should be held to a higher standard than an insignificant comment made by an individual that has more truth?

    Anonymous · June 21st, 2008 at 3:20 PM

  • Huh? Did Korea Beat drink the kool aide?

    MBC deserves to be punished for that crap they aired on PD Box because it was the impetus behind the nationwide protests, protests that were based on misconceptions and lies.

    Max Watson · June 21st, 2008 at 3:29 PM

  • I don’t think it’s fair to say I’m drinking anyone’s Kool Aid just because I don’t think it’s the government’s job to decide which news organizations are doing a good job and which aren’t. That’s a recipe for disaster. I fully recognize that a lot of the beef protests began out of people being badly misinformed. But the government is also responsible for being caught flatfooted and not putting the truth out sooner and more effectively and now it wants to make up for that by sending people to jail, which would be a disturbing precedent.

    Korea Beat · June 21st, 2008 at 3:35 PM

  • […] So, they have misled the public and manipulated public opinion by using poor journalism, and now they are having to pay the price for that. Korea Beat have posted an article about this, and I am not sure if I agree 100% with their position … […]

    Korean broadcaster to face criminal charges over lies that led to US Beef fiasco. « 외국인의 관측 · June 21st, 2008 at 3:48 PM

  • im afraid i still don’t understand Korea Beat. from what i understand, the government informed, but the people refused to listen(?). the people only listened to reports that only supported their stance, resulting to the sensationalized and false news reports by MBC.

    please correct me if i am wrong.

    jaime · June 21st, 2008 at 4:04 PM

  • Hey Korea Beat,

    Many thanks for your efforts at translating these articles. I do appreciate the quick updates.

    That said, I must say I disagree with your stance. MBC is a ‘professional’ news organization. It takes a conscious effort to mistranslate quotes that only support one’s position and also doctor reports in the same way. The producers and so-called ‘journalists’ at MBC deliberately misled the public. They should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, and since the object of their slander is a government ministry, the government has every right, actually a duty, to slap them down!

    At the very least, MBC should have to issue a very public apology. It would be nice to see them pay a hefty fine also. Too much of this type of laziness and shoddy reporting goes on in Korea. If no one is made an example of, it will just continue.

    And just to clarify, what did you mean by “I don’t think it’s ok for the government to go after the press like this. I wouldn’t want to see my government going after 9/11 truthers…”

    Please, please don’t tell me you are one of those nuts who actually think the U.S. government was behind the 9/11 attacks. Not only is that an insult to the people who died, it’s extremely stupid. Anyone who has ever had any dealings with the American government would quickly realize that such a ‘stunt’ is far beyond the ability of those same government officials. And to keep such a thing secret? C’mon, haven’t you heard of a little thing called ‘Watergate’? How about the Iran-contra scandal? Surely you know about the stained blue dress? Please, please tell me you are not so naive.

    In addition, those 9/11 liars are not the mainstream press. The government doesn’t ‘go after’ them because most rational people don’t take them seriously. It would be a different story, and rightfully so, if CNN, ABC or some other network started spreading such bullshite.

    In this case, MBC IS the mainstream press, and they should be taken to task.

    Steelhorse · June 21st, 2008 at 7:32 PM

  • Of course I don’t believe in the 9/11 truthers, it was one example chosen because those people also slander government officials. You could substitute, say, Keith Olbermann, who regularly says nasty things about President Bush and other prominent Republicans and awards his “Worst Person in the World” prizes. Or like I said above, Physicians for Human Rights — I bet the President doesn’t like having people say he’s a liar on the issue of torture, but he’s not going to start a legal case against them.

    So what if MBC is the mainstream press? Do you think Dan Rather should have gone to prison over the fabricated National Guard documents? As you may know, truth is not a defense to slander and libel in South Korea so this is potentially a road without end.

    Also, out of the Ministry’s four complaints, only the last one could conceivably constitute slander, and frankly, all they have for that one is “they said we screwed up, waaaah!” Mistranslations and the other stuff don’t constitute slander of the government. If misleading the public is against the law, plenty of politicians might want to get good lawyers on retainer.

    Korea Beat · June 21st, 2008 at 8:22 PM

  • There is a big difference here between the 9/11 truthers and PD Diary in that there have been specific quantifiable damages that resulted in the libel perpetrated by PD. Also, the 9/11 conspirisists are not taken seriously by the majority of Americans but PD Diary is the equivalent of CBS (?) 60 Minutes in the minds of Koreans. They trust it and they betrayed that trust with jingoistic reporting and blatant lies. I’m sure American journalists could be held accountable under U.S. libel laws if they reported something that had such wide reaching social and economic ramifications.
    That said, all I can say about the plan to file suit: “Hallelujah!!” I just hope the Supreme Court (where this will undoubtedly be decided eventuatlly) has the balls to take a stand and it doesn’t just get settled with some agreement to “do better next time.” They need to be held accountable or THAT is a never ending cycle.

    Fencerider · June 21st, 2008 at 8:56 PM

  • I am really uncomfortable with the idea of the government punishing the media. There are other methods which would be more appropriate to counteract the misinformation put out by MBC and PD Notebook, but I think by seeking to directly attack them, the government is proving the worst fears of the people.

    In seeking to punish them, they are really just promoting censorship. It’s really not a good thing when the government starts to censor the media, pisspoor reporting or not.

    budthespud · June 21st, 2008 at 9:39 PM

  • so let me get this straight, it should be free speech for the media and libel suits for individuals who express an opinion?

    Anonymous · June 21st, 2008 at 9:46 PM

  • If an individual OR a news organization publishes information intended to harm an individual’s reputation, then they pay the legal consequences. The harmed individual pursues the case with the government as an unbiased judge.

    Obviously if the government does this, it now gets to judge the merits of its own case. Besides that, I doubt the government’s case has a firm legal theory holding it up, and I suspect that those cheering this action just want to see people they don’t like get hammered without giving thought to what it would lead to when someone they don’t approve of is wielding that hammer.

    Korea Beat · June 21st, 2008 at 10:17 PM

  • KoreaBeat,

    Using lies and fabricated events, MBC used their access to the public media to intentionally deceive the public. If any news organization were to do that in the U.S., you bet your ass they would be sued as well.

    There is a big difference between using facts to support your opinions and making up facts that are contrary to the actual truth to support your opinions.

    With that said, I think this is actually more about pinning the full blame on MBC rather than sharing the blame between MBC and the part of the Korean populace that wanted to believe the lies, even after they were revealed to be lies weeks ago. This is a political move, but not so much about slapping down the left-leaning media as it is letting the Korean public off the hook.

    MigukNamja · June 22nd, 2008 at 9:11 AM

  • Look, I know perfectly well that MBC intentionally lied. What I’m saying is

    a) I doubt their behavior reaches the legal threshold for slander, because as far as I know they never said anything slanderous about a specific person.

    b) That being the case, the government has no legal foundation for its action and is essentially just trying to punish people for doing something it doesn’t like. Just because they are on my side of this issue doesn’t mean they will be on my side of another issue tomorrow, and like budthespud says, that’s getting close to censorship.

    Korea Beat · June 22nd, 2008 at 9:56 AM

  • The best way to combat this type of reporting is not government interference. That will only fuel public anger. Other media outlets need to seize this opportunity and report excessively on all the faux-news MBC produces daily. It would open the market, create higher quality news and give the jokers at MBC a little competition.

    The government should cautiously issue public statements decrying the slanderous news network and then stay away from this issue.

    the clam · June 22nd, 2008 at 10:16 AM

  • DAMN! Why is Korea beat being thrown under the bus for his opinion?

    I can see each sides point:

    Korea Beat’s not wanting any gov’n to have any say on what can or can not be said to the public through the media.

    and the others’ point of view that mainstream media are at a higher standard than other media agencies, and should not abuse their power and spread false information.

    I think what should happen is that MBC should have to release a statement specifically telling the public what things they falsified in detail (to stop the misleading infor for spreading any farther they put out), and pay some kind of fine.
    Because if you hit them in pockets they would definitely not do it anymore (hopefully).

    But definitely not a law suit from the gov’n because that will only cause the gov’n to open the door for themselves to go after any media agencies that they feel are not spreading the messages they want out there. If they can do it to the big fishes they will definitely do it to small fishes (bloggers).

    HELLO, SLIPPERY SLOPE PEOPLE!

    cjlatina · June 22nd, 2008 at 12:26 PM

  • DAMN x2!

    It seems you really opened a can of worms on this thread, Korea Beat! Nice, lively discussion. It does seem like a lot of people are taking issue with you on this stance.

    Thanks for clarifying your point above (#9). Sorry if I was bit harsh, but I had a friend who actually started to buy into that nonsense when it first started showing up on the interet. It was hard being patient with him.

    I do understand the point you and cjlatina are making–it’s dangerous when the government goes after the media, especially in a young democracy like Korea. However, MBC has no excuse for what they did. I think there should be some kind of fine system to go after yellow journalism (no racist pun intended) in Korea, but the only organization that could manage that is the government.

    By the way I don’t Keith Olbermann deliberately misquotes others or makes facts up. You can’t compare him to what MBC did.

    As far as Dan Rather goes, this from Wikipedia: “Following an investigation commissioned by CBS,[16][17][18] CBS fired story producer Mary Mapes and asked three other producers connected with the story to resign. Many believe Rather’s retirement was hastened by this incident.”

    I’m not holding my breath, but it would be nice to see something like this happen to the PD’s and others responsible at MBC. But let’s be real: it won’t happen. That’s why there needs to be some sort of agency established to hold these idiots to a certain standard. They obviously aren’t going to do it themselves. Yes, it is dangerous if the goverment is that agency. But something needs to be done before the Korean media digs itself into a hole it can’t get out of. How long is the Korean public going to trust their national media if they keep doing crap like this?

    Anyway, thanks again for your interesting blog.

    Steelhorse · June 22nd, 2008 at 7:50 PM

  • Re: #15

    Korea Beat,

    You do have some valid points, yes. Also, I don’t know enough of the Korean legal system to know whether MBC clearly broke the law or not. Hence, I don’t know where the line is between censorship and criminal prosecution.

    Can anyone shed some light on this distinction ?

    MigukNamja · June 22nd, 2008 at 9:24 PM

  • Re: #18

    “How long is the Korean public going to trust their national media if they keep doing crap like this?”

    Charlene Shiherlis: What else are you selling?
    Sgt. Drucker: All kinds of shit. But I don’t have to sell this and you know it, ’cause this kind of shit here sells itself.

    Heat, 1995
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0113277/quotes

    Substitute knee-jerk Korean left for Charlene and MBC for Drucker. In other words, the Korean public was all too willing to believe this particular lie.

    Unfortunately, it’s difficult to fire or even sue anyone in particular from the Korean general population. So, that’s why the focus of retribution is on MBC. They are at least an identifiable target that is capable of modified behavior through negative feedback (pain via punishment).

    MigukNamja · June 22nd, 2008 at 9:29 PM

  • #18 and #19 (hey, nice moniker!) raise an issue: how can the government punish MBC for PD Notebook’s broadcast, if it didn’t break the law? Or, if the current law is too draconian and unconscionable, would any South Korean want the government to punish MBC? Asking for a new regulatory agency, or just passing a fairer media law doesn’t condone punishing MBC now. The government is on shaky ground if it punishes MBC now. It’s a wiser course to reform, and then with this example and others as proof, prosecute MBC if it even looks cross-eyed at the line between public service and demagoguery.

    I’m very concerned about the rise of frustrated feelings in response to the orgy of excessive partisan pique on Seoul’s streets. After all, US President Adams rammed home the Alien and Sedition Acts and President Jefferson overreached with the Embargo Act. Patience! The Americans and British were still saber-rattling until the 1840s! At this rate we’ll all kill ourselves from bitching long before all the fight has left the scene.

    Baltimoron · June 23rd, 2008 at 8:39 PM

  • MBC is partly government-funded. Perhaps the network could simply be defunded, full-stop.

    slim · June 23rd, 2008 at 8:44 PM

  • #22:

    Sweet!

    But, just until they retract the story and allow netizens to egg them in public!

    Baltimoron · June 23rd, 2008 at 9:11 PM

  • I am going to have to side with Korea Beat on this one. For the government to sue is too much like media control. And besides, if the majority of the Korean people didn’t WANT to believe the worse about the US, they wouldn’t have. (I believe that was said in an earlier post, but deserves to be repeated.)

    Honestly, what “Harm” has been done? The protests have pretty much put the final nail in the KORUS FTA, it has propelled the US troops one step closer to leaving, both things IMHO are good. Until the US pulls its troops out, the US is going to be used as a destablizing agent for the anti-American crowd. It is time for the Yanks to leave, not only their troops, but also their unbalanced and unfair trade.

    Time for Korea to sink or swim, without the assistance of the US.

    Gillian57 · June 26th, 2008 at 5:52 AM

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