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South Korea 16 December 2005

Probe into secret service phone tapping scandal clears everyone except the journalists

Reporters Without Borders today called on South Korean Justice minister Chun Jung-Bae to seek a revision of the conclusions of a public prosecutor’s investigation into telephone tapping by the South Korean secret services a decade ago “insofar as the prosecutor’s decisions violate the freedom of the press that is guaranteed by the constitution.”

In his findings published on 14 December, a Seoul prosecutor decided that two journalists who revealed the phone tapping will be tried, but those whose involvement in political corruption was exposed by the tapping will not be charged because too much time has elapsed since the offences were committed.

“The findings of this long investigation with enormous political implication are extremely surprising,” Reporters Without Borders said. “We expected to learn the names of the 75 journalists whose phones were illegally tapped, but instead we find the prosecutor only takes an interest in the journalists who revealed this case.”

The press freedom organisation added: “It is grotesque that those responsible for the corruption and those who ordered the phone taps have been whitewashed, while the journalists who went out of their way to investigate this case now face the possibility of prison sentences.”

The report published on 14 December by Hwang Kyo-an of the central Seoul bureau of prosecutors details the findings of his investigation into clandestine phone tapping carried out by the secret services from 1993 until November 1997, a period in which the conversations of more than 5,400 people including 75 journalists were monitored.

The taps revealed, for example, that a former chairman of the opposition conservative party illegally received 10 million dollars from the consumer electronics giant Samsung in 1997. Yet none of the senior political officials implicated in corruption by the phone taps are to be charged because of the lapse of time.

However, the prosecutor has charged Lee Sang-ho, a reporter with the privately-owned TV station MBC, and Kim Yeon-kwang, the editor of the monthly Chosun, with violating the law on confidential communications. It was MBC who exposed the phone tapping scandal in July. Lee was questioned several times by the prosecutor’s office, while Kim was questioned just once, for two hours on 7 December.

Kong Un-yeong, the former head of the “Mirim” phone tapping unit, tried to commit suicide in July following the revelations. He is currently detained. William Park, a Korean-American businessman, has meanwhile been sentenced to 14 months in prison for trying to blackmail Samsung and for passing recordings to Lee.

Lee received an award from Transparency International at the start of this month for his active role in combating corruption. He told Reporters Without Borders: “I have always put the public’s right to be informed above respect for a law on confidential information that was adopted by the same government that carried out all these thousands of illegal phone taps.”

This is the first time that journalists have been charged under this law. Their trial, in which they face up to 10 years in prison, could start as early as next month.

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