South Korean officials raided the residence of Newstapa CEO and former editor-in-chief Yongjin Kim on Dec. 6 over a 2022 news report about the country’s president, in a move that authorities say relates to a defamation investigation, but that Newstapa claims is part of an anti-press campaign by the government.
In March 2022, Newstapa reported on a 2011 allegation that current President Yoon Suk Yeol, who was then a prosecutor, decided not to indict a man involved in a banking and real estate scandal after pressure from a lawyer. Yoon has repeatedly denied the allegation.
As part of their reporting, Newstapa published the transcript of a recorded conversation between a freelance researcher and a man who allegedly had direct knowledge of the case. A special team of prosecutors in charge of investigating instances of presidential election intervention accused Newstapa of spreading false information contained in the taped interview. The officials are also investigating whether an alleged $122,000 transaction that the researcher accepted from the man he interviewed was a bribe — accusations that both individuals have denied, according to various media reports including the New York Times.
In a statement published on Newstapa’s website, Kim rejected allegations of wrongdoing as “baseless” and condemned the raid as “unprecedented in the post-democratic era.” He also defended the 2022 news piece as a “perfectly normal” and “well-sourced” verification report about a political candidate.
In September, prosecutors also raided the researcher’s home, as well as the Newstapa offices and the residences of two Newstapa journalists, a move the news organization then condemned as an “invasion of independent media.”
Though Newstapa journalists have been cooperating with the authorities, the prosecutors have not provided any evidence that proves the “incriminating facts,” Newstapa said in the statement.
“This proves that the prosecution’s investigation was unwarranted from the outset and was in fact nothing more than a political stunt to protect the president’s feelings and silence critical media,” the statement said.
Newstapa had previously reported that the journalists were “completely unaware” of any financial transaction between the researcher and the interviewee, and that if any took place it did not influence their reporting. Following the September raids, Newstapa said it established a fact-finding committee consisting of four media scholars and one legal expert to investigate the controversial interview and whether any improper financial transaction occurred.
Newstapa is the online news outlet of the Korea Center for Investigative Journalism and a media partner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Its journalists have collaborated with ICIJ on a number of award-winning investigations, including the Panama Papers and the Pandora Papers, and have exposed corruption scandals linked to some of South Korea’s most powerful political figures and business people.
Kim is an ICIJ member and a former journalist for state broadcaster KBS. He co-founded Newstapa in 2012 after politically-connected KBS executives disbanded Kim’s investigative unit following an exposé of the then-president’s allies, Kim said in a 2019 interview with ICIJ.
About 10 years after creating Newstapa as a newsroom “designed to be independent from political and corporate influence,” he is now accusing Yoon’s government of attempting to censor independent journalism.
Since he was elected president last year, Yoon has been using lawsuits, criminal investigations and other measures to crack down on what he calls “fake news,” according to a New York Times report, which described his presidency as characterized by “fears of censorship and democratic backsliding.”
According to the Journalists Association of Korea, about half of the 994 journalists who responded to a recent survey expressed concerns that press freedom has decreased under the current administration. Respondents cited “pressure on media companies” and “tangible and intangible pressure on reporters” as reasons for their concerns.
The so-called Special Investigation Team for the Presidential Election Intervention, which is part of Seoul Central District prosecutors’ office, searched Kim’s home on suspicion of defamation under the country’s Information and Communications Network Act, KBS reported.
“The prosecutors will be held clearly and severely accountable for their outrageous use of citizen-entrusted power to serve the regime and crack down on free speech,” Kim’s statement said.
“Newstapa will use all means at our disposal to hold them accountable.”
Correction, Dec. 8: This article misstated Yongjin Kim’s current role at Newstapa. He is the current CEO and former editor-in-chief, not the current editor-in-chief.