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Korean President’s Battle Against ‘Fake News’ Alarms Critics

Allies of President Yoon Suk Yeol are attacking what they see as an existential threat to South Korea, and they are mincing few words. The head of Mr. Yoon’s party has called for the death sentence for a case of “high treason.” The culture ministry has vowed to root out what it called an “organized and dirty” conspiracy to undermine the country’s democracy.

In this case, the accused is not a foreign spy, but a Korean news outlet that has published articles critical of Mr. Yoon and his government.

The president, a former prosecutor, is turning to lawsuits, state regulators and criminal investigations to clamp down on speech that he calls disinformation, efforts that have largely been aimed at news organizations. Since Mr. Yoon was elected last year, the police and prosecutors have repeatedly raided the homes and newsrooms of journalists whom his office has accused of spreading “fake news.”

Some South Koreans accuse Mr. Yoon of repurposing the expression as justification for defamation suits and to mobilize prosecutors and regulators to threaten penalties and criminal investigations. Many are exasperated that their leader has adopted the phrase, a rallying cry for strongmen around the world that is also further dividing an increasingly polarized electorate at home.

Mr. Yoon’s crackdown intensified in September, when his office singled out an independent news organization for a report it published last year.

Prosecutors ransacked the homes and offices of two reporters from Newstapa, which ran the article. Journalists from other outlets were also targeted, their cellphones and files​ confiscated to collect criminal evidence of defamation. The authorities have rarely taken such measures since South Korea democratized in the 1990s, though that has changed under Mr. Yoon. Government regulators fined three cable and TV channels​ that had picked up the Newstapa article​, also accusing them of spreading “fake news.”

The article that earned Newstapa the ire of Mr. Yoon was published three days before ​his election, in March 2022. It described an allegation that Mr. Yoon, as a prosecutor in 2011, had decided not to indict Cho Woo-hyung, a man ​involved in a banking and real-estate scandal, because of​ lobbying by a prosecutor turned lawyer. Mr. Yoon denied the claim during presidential debates​ and still does​.

Other news organizations had reported on the controversy before. But Newstapa acquired an audio file of a conversation between one of its freelance researchers and Kim Man-bae, a former journalist and a key figure in the scandal, who claimed that he had introduced Mr. Cho to the lawyer, who then used his influence with Mr. Yoon to get the case against Mr. Cho dropped. Newstapa said the freelancer was not on assignment when the conversation took place in 2021 and provided the audio only days before the vote.

After Mr. Yoon was elected, the Newstapa article was largely forgotten — until prosecutors raided the freelancer’s home in September, accusing him of taking $122,000 in bribes from Mr. Kim. The freelancer and Mr. Kim both denied bribery, and Newstapa said it was not aware of any financial transactions between the two when it published the article. But it stood by the decision to report the contents of the audio file and accused ​the president of trying to silence an outlet that refused to toe ​his line.

South Koreans, distrustful of traditional media, have increasingly migrated to YouTube and other online sources for news. These platforms wielded huge influence during the last presidential election, spreading openly partisan views.

“The so-called new media outlets are more aggressive in gathering and distributing facts on key issues of the moment than traditional media,” said Ahn Soo-chan, a journalism professor at Semyung University. “And political power becomes more aggressive in trying to control them.”

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