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[Editorial] Intimidating the press

CIO secretly seizes phone records of journalists after critical reports

The Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials is said to have obtained phone records of about 40 journalists of at least 13 media companies.

The numbers may rise as reporters are asking telecom companies if the agency secretly requested their phone records.

The CIO says that it legally obtained the records to find out whom suspects in cases under its probe had talked to over the phone.

Telecom companies usually hand over phone records if requested by the CIO and other law enforcement agencies to do so with the object of gathering investigation information. The records reveal the names, resident registration numbers and addresses of telecom subscribers and the phone numbers of incoming and outgoing calls.

Reporters are not high-ranking officials subject to the CIO investigations. Personal information on reporters and innocent persons who talked to them over the phone is exposed to investigators. This is a secret infringement upon privacy. Above all, reporters and their news sources cannot but feel pressure in communicating with each other. It dispirits the freedom of the press.

It is hard to view the CIO’s explanation as convincing. The agency did not only check phone records of reporters covering cases under its investigation, but also queried telecommunications of reporters covering opposition political parties and even cameramen. Reporters covering political parties and cameramen are said to have never talked with the prosecutor being investigated by the agency in a case where he allegedly instigated the main opposition People Power Party to file complaints against figures siding with the ruling party ahead of the legislative election last year.

The CIO obtained phone records of reporters after their critical media reports on the agency. This raises questions if it watched media with an impure intention.

TV Chosun reported in April that the agency secretly escorted Lee Sung-yoon, head of the Seoul High Prosecutors’ Office, who is regarded as loyal to the government, in one of the CIO’s official vehicles after summoning him to the agency for questioning in connection with allegations that he suppressed prosecutors’ investigations into an illegal ban on a former justice vice minister’s departure from the country. Two months later, the CIO checked phone records of the cable channel’s city editor and five reporters covering judicial beats.

From August to October, it seized communication records of three Munhwa Ilbo reporters who reported critically on the agency’s investigations into allegations involving Yoon Suk-yeol, presidential candidate of the opposition People Power Party. It did the same with reporters of other media companies.

Even if the agency needs phone records out of necessity for investigation, it must minimize the number of phones to be checked. Furthermore, the CIO, citing ongoing investigations, keeps silent about what it wanted to check from phone records.

The silence invites suspicions that the agency is spying on media to ferret out leakers or tipsters. The Democratic Party does not say a word, either, about the CIO’s surveillance suspicions. The same is true with Cheong Wa Dae.

The ruling party legislated the creation of the investigation agency unilaterally over a strong protest from the opposition party concerned about its possible abuse as the guard of the regime.

Four of the 12 cases that the agency has investigated for 11 months since it was launched involve Yoon, the PPP presidential candidate. On the contrary, it turns its face away from the Daejang-dong land development scandal involving Lee Jae-myung, the presidential nominee of the ruling party, even though the allegations should be dealt with as a high priority case.

No arrest has been made so far by the CIO, not to mention indictments. In the case where a prosecutor allegedly instigated the PPP to file complaints against politicians who agree with the DP, the agency requested his arrest once and his pre-trial detention twice, but all of the requests were rejected by the court. In the second pre-trial detention hearing, a senior CIO official pleaded the judge to issue a warrant, saying that “we are amateurs (in investigation).”

The agency has undermined its own value with incompetent and politically biased investigations. Now it is under suspicions that it is spying on reporters. Its reason for existence is fading away.

By Korea Herald (khnews@heraldcorp.com)
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