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Prosecution’s weekly media briefings to end next month

Nov 21,2019
The Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office said Tuesday that it will discontinue the decade-old weekly media briefings starting next month, following the Justice Ministry’s new public affairs directive.

According to an official of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office, the tradition of holding a weekly briefing with reporters will come to an end, as the Justice Ministry’s new public affairs guidelines will take effect starting Dec. 1.

“The tea time will be shut down starting December, so we will only have a few tea times left this month,” said the official. “From now on, it will be hard to take phone calls from reporters.”

The so-called tea time of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office refers to a routine meeting between senior prosecutors and reporters from 40 media companies. The tea times have been held every Wednesday at 2:30 p.m. at the small conference room of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office where deputy heads of the district prosecutors’ office answer reporters’ questions.

The meetings have served as a communication channel between prosecutors and reporters. When the prosecution was handling sensitive cases, such as the probe into the deadly scuffle between the police and squatters over a redevelopment project in Yongsan in 2009, tea times were held daily.

The unique culture of the prosecution, however, is starting to diminish as the Ministry of Justice decided to tighten its control over prosecutors’ contact with media outlets. In the past, the first deputy head of the office often hosted his tea time on Mondays, but only the Wednesday meeting by the third deputy head has been held in recent weeks.

Under the new guidelines, which will take effect starting December, all district prosecutors’ offices nationwide will appoint officials in charge of media relations. The new measures will ban prosecutors from having individual contact with reporters and making public specific details of a criminal case such as criminal charges.

Only media relations officials will be allowed to maintain contact with reporters, and their briefings will only concern material in press releases.

Suspects and witnesses will not be summoned publicly and photographers won’t be allowed to take their photos. The new guidelines also said a reporter who makes an erroneous report that violates the honor or privacy of a person involved in an investigation, a prosecutor or an investigator will be banned from entering the prosecution.

Former senior members of the prosecution who had hosted the tea times said it is undesirable to terminate the decades-old culture.

“Media reports are sometimes unreasonable, but it is necessary to maintain the channel because it allows the media to play its role to check and balance those with powers,” said lawyer Yu Sang-beom, former third deputy head of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office who hosted the tea time from 2014 till 2015. “The prosecution may appoint media relations officials, but he won’t be the prosecutor in charge of specific cases, so he may not know all the details.”

“Prosecutors can withhold suspected criminal charges during the tea time,” said Jeong Byeong-du, who served as the first deputy head of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office in 2009. “They can just tell the media that there were raids for search and seizure without revealing the criminal charges. Such a tea time is not illegal.”

Another former prosecutor, Jeon Hyeon-jun, said tea times are also a good public affairs opportunity for the prosecution “Tea times prevent erroneous reports,” he said. “The prosecution can also promote what it wants to tell the public. Scrapping the old practice doesn’t automatically mean a better media relations measure.”

“The press room for embedded reporters and routine briefings are a part of a peculiar media culture in Korea,” said a media expert. “The culture, however, is not necessary when there is a cartel between a few prosecutors and a few reporters. But, the media environment has changed largely with the rise of online media and the tea times no longer represent a cartel.”

He was also critical about the new public affairs guidelines, introduced by the Justice Ministry amid the scandal surrounding former Justice Minister Cho Kuk. “The people are particularly interested in heinous crimes and high-profile political cases,” he said. “But the new measures can be seen as hampering their right to such information.”

BY KIM MIN-SANG [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]