MBC Staffers Indicted Over Mad Cow Report
By Kim Rahn
Prosecutors indicted four MBC program directors and a scriptwriter of a current affairs program, Thursday, for distorting facts with the intention to exaggerate the risk of mad cow disease associated with American beef.
The five, working on for PD Notebook, were indicted without physical detention on charges of defamation and interference with business.
They responded by saying the indictment was a serious infringement of freedom of the press.
The indictment came a year after the Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries asked the prosecution to investigate the program for defamation on June 20. The program about U.S. beef and the risk of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, was aired on April 29. The program was crucial in triggering the months-long candlelit vigil against a decision to import American beef.
``In 30 scenes, the program directors intentionally distorted facts about the disease and the government's negotiations with the U.S. and thus spread false information, defaming former Agriculture Minister Chung Woon-chun and Min Dong-seok, the former chief negotiator of the beef deal,'' senior prosecutor Jeong Byeong-doo said.
According to the prosecution, the producers made false reports through arbitrary misinterpretation of interviews in English or omitting translations; distorting facts; omitting explanations; and connecting scenes without causal relationship together so that they looked like they were related.
``The distorted editing made viewers, who had had little information about the issue, believe that the government negotiated poorly with the U.S. and that American beef carrying a high risk of BSE contamination would be imported,'' Jeong said.
``It seriously damaged Chung and Min as they had to suffer from threats and insults such as being called `traitors' on the Internet,'' he said.
The program also harmed the business of American beef importers, who suffered from losses in sales and difficulty in forging business ties, Jeong said.
Fierce Legal Battle Ahead
The producers, however, claim the report was not false, even though they admitted to some mistakes in translation. They denounced the prosecution for ``suppressing the freedom of expression, which is a basic principle of democracy.''
``It is a comedy that the government accuses journalists for criticizing a wrong policy and sues them for defamation. I don't know what `intention' we had. We never mentioned the names of Chung and Min in the program,'' Cho Neung-hee, one of the producers, said.
Following the indictment and refutation, a fierce legal battle is expected over whether the alleged distortions and exaggerations were intentional, or were caused from mistakes in sorting out and editing material.
The court must decide whether a critical report about public policy can discredit public officials, and whether the program and beef importers' losses were directly related.
In a related trial, the Seoul High Court ordered MBC, Wednesday, to air a correction about certain content of the program, accepting the ministry's request. The broadcaster will not need to follow the order until the Supreme Court makes a final ruling.