By Kim Seung-yeon
SEOUL, Sept. 1 (Yonhap) -- A U.N. human rights expert has urged South Korea to revise a controversial media bill centered on imposing punitive damages on media outlets reporting misinformation or fake news, saying it would "severely restrict" the freedom of the press, a document showed Wednesday.
Irene Khan, a special rapporteur for promoting the right to freedom of expression, made the call in a letter received by the foreign ministry, seeking explanation on the legislation that calls for punitive damages up to five times more than usual if the media outlet is found guilty of running false or manipulated news reports.
In the letter, Khan cited Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) -- to which Korea has acceded -- that everyone's right to "opinion, to seek, receive and import information and ideas of all kinds" should be protected without interference and may only be restricted under a few exceptions, like when it concerns national security or protecting public health.
Khan also pointed out that the punitive damages stipulated in the draft law appear to be "utterly disproportionate," voicing concerns that it could "result in self-censorship by the media."
"If adopted without further changes, it may severely restrict the rights to freedom of information and of expression of the media," Khan said. "I would respectfully urge a revision of the draft law for the purpose of bringing it in line with international human rights standards."
Under international human rights law, she said, people have the right to express ill-founded opinions if they wish, and the intention to prohibit false information cannot be a legitimate reason to restrict freedom of expression.
"I worry that the draft Press Arbitration Act, as it currently stands, confers excessive discretion to the authorities that may lead to arbitrary implementation," the expert said.
The letter came after local human rights advocate groups lodged an appeal with the U.N. special rapporteurs to voice concerns that the legislation being pushed by the ruling Democratic Party could undermine freedom of the press and fair trial.
The government is required to provide a response in 60 days.
On Tuesday, the ruling and opposition parties agreed to table the bill in a plenary parliamentary session set for later this month as the ruling party backed away from its plan to pass the bill this month amid the strong backlash from the media industry and opposition lawmakers.