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Offices, homes of reporters searched over alleged 2022 election meddling

Sept. 14, 2023 - 15:31 By Son Ji-hyoung
Members of Newstapa chant slogans and confront prosecutors, as authorities seek to enter the news organization's office to conduct a search and seizure over the alleged reporting of misinformation concerning President Yoon Suk Yeol that occurred during the election campaign last year. (Yonhap)

The South Korean prosecution on Thursday raided the offices and homes of news reporters who allegedly delivered fabricated news reports in an apparent attempt to discredit President Yoon Suk Yeol during his presidential campaign last year.

The Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office dispatched staff to carry out a search and seizure at the offices of broadcaster JTBC and investigative news outlet Newstapa, as well as homes of two Newstapa reporters Han Sang-jin and Bong Ji-wook. Bong was formerly a JTBC reporter.

Staff of Newstapa, also known as Korea Center for Investigative Journalism, blocked the entrance of the office to confront with the prosecution for more than an hour, until they let the prosecution get in, its live footage on YouTube indicated.

This search and seizure came a week after the prosecution set up a special team to look into any criminal offenses regarding an interview, defining it as attempts to interfere in the election.

The prosecution alleges that the reporters had defamed Yoon online when he was a presidential candidate what they claim was an election meddling attempt. An official of the prosecution said in a statement it meant to seize the full transcript of the interview in question and explore any potential "collusive ties" that motivated the news reports.

Online defamation is punishable with up to seven years of imprisonment, under Korean law.

Han was accused of running a story about an hourslong interview of Kim Man-bae, a key figure behind a high-profile land corruption scandal in southern Gyeonggi Province, conducted by Shin Hak-lim, a Newstapa advisor and former chair of the progressive National Union of Media Workers. The interview was recorded in September 2021.

As the election campaigning unfolded, the so-called "Daejang-dong" scandal -- over a lucrative project to supply homes, the dividend of which was distributed improperly and disproportionately among investors -- took center stage during the election in which Democratic Party of Korea Chair Rep. Lee Jae-myung, was then in a neck-and-neck race with former prosecutor-general Yoon.

Lee had been under scrutiny over an alleged connection with the key figures in this scandal through the election campaign, given that Lee was then the mayor of Seongnam city, which had approved the project, eventually allowing a small group of private investors to take a much larger profit than expected.

But Han's story -- published just a few days before election day, immediately after Shin handed over the voice recording of the interview to Newstapa -- suggested that Yoon was actually the mastermind behind the land corruption scandal, according to Kim's argument.

Yoon ended up narrowly winning the election against Lee in March 2022.

According to the prosecution, Shin of Newstapa received 165 million won ($124,560) from former journalist Kim before the story ran in Newstapa, but prosecutors have yet to find evidence over whether such money was transferred to Shin in exchange for the story.

Newstapa apologized earlier in September over the "unethical" money transfer, but refused to admit that the report itself was fake news. It claimed that the ruling People Power Party and other media are joining forces with the Yoon administration. It said that prosecutors are on "a witchhunt" in which they are making "unverifiable arguments," it added.

Main opposition leader Lee is currently standing trial over an alleged breach of trust that denied a state-run developer's financial gains of 489.5 billion won, which eventually allowed private investors to take 788.6 billion won of illicit gains.

Meanwhile, Bong, then a JTBC reporter, filed a news story about Yoon's alleged attempt in 2011 to cover up for a key official of Busan Savings Bank over his involvement in the Daejang-dong land corruption scandal through a money transfer, as the financial institution was facing fraud charges. Yoon was then a senior prosecutor.

JTBC last week apologized for the report, saying Bong's report failed to reflect the Busan Savings Bank official's remarks that he did not know Yoon. Bong denied the accusations, telling media that JTBC's apology came without his consent or any fact-checking process with him.