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). Television remains popular despite a decline in viewership due to the development of the internet, of which South Koreans are the world’s heaviest users. Many inform themselves solely through Youtube and local online news platforms such as Naver and Daum.
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 2015 report from the liberal Democratic Party’s Institute of Democracy highlighted the dominance of conglomerates in the media advertising market: Hyundai Automobile is dominant in three of the four major general cable channels, and Samsung is the biggest advertising client in all three of the major terrestrial broadcasters and in five of the main national newspapers.
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 can operate in generally satisfactory conditions, they can be victims of online harassment, a practice against which no law protects them.