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INTERVIEW | MediaWatch: How a Small Publisher is Fighting Academic Censorship in South Korea

MediaWatch founder Byun Hee-jae says that scholarly rebuttal is the standard practice in academic debate — not weaponizing the media and law to stifle dissent.

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Byun Hee-jae, founder and CEO of MediaWatch. (©Kenji Yoshida)

Between the skyscrapers and extravagant boutiques of Seoul's Mapo district sits a small publishing house called MediaWatch. Founded in 2009, MediaWatch is known for publishing unconventional books and running independent media focused on investigative journalism. 

Since 2020, the company has translated numerous books that challenge popular historical discourse in South Korea. Topics range from the comfort women issue to the forced labor dispute and debates over Japan's colonial ventures in Chosun (Korea). 

In the age of a declining publishing industry, one wonders what could motivate them to pursue such an unprofitable and unpopular task. 

Byun Hee-jae, founder and president of MediaWatch, says it has nothing to do with money but everything to do with confronting the censorship regime in his country. In South Korea, dissents against state-imposed historical views are often suppressed through legal sanctions and societal pressure. 

In January 2024, the publisher released another contentious book — this time by an American academic. The book is a translation of Harvard Professor J Mark Ramseyer's papers on comfort women and Japan's pre-war prostitution industry. 

JAPAN Forward sat with Byun to discuss what led to the recent decision. Byun also spoke about the nation's decaying democratic norms and offered a way forward. 

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Excerpts of the interview follow. 

Recent Publications

Can you introduce some of the books published by MediaWatch? 

In December 2020, we translated a book by a renowned Korea expert, Tsutomu Nishioka, that debunks South Korea's long-established narratives on Imperial Japan's forced mobilization. The following year, we translated two books on the comfort women issue by the same author. 

In 2022, we translated and published Ikuhiko Hata's classic, Comfort Women and Sex in the Battle Zone. And lately, we added Ramseyer's work on comfort women and Japan's pre-war sex industry to our list. We're also working on other historical non-fiction due out in the coming years. 

Cover of "Comfort Women and Sex in the Battle Zone" (Korean edition). (©Kyobo Books)

Professor Ramseyer's comfort women papers go toe-to-toe with conventional wisdom in South Korea. Publishing them wasn't an easy decision. What led to the publication? 

We originally planned the project during the "Ramseyer controversy" and the public outcry that followed in early 2021. The timeline also coincided with the heightened media coverage of the scandals involving Yoon Mee Hyang [former head of the Korean Council]. 

If an academic disagrees with their colleague's work, the standard and reasonable method of conveying it is through scholarly rebuttal. Resorting bullying or seeking outright retraction is simply not logical. 

Korean edition of "Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War" by Professor J Mark Ramseyer.

Shortly before Ramseyer's ordeal, Lew Seok-Choon was also criminally prosecuted for speaking out on the comfort women issue in his lecture. As a protest to those seeking to shut down the two scholars, I approved the initiative.

Ramseyer had long refused to receive profit from book sales and requested the book be released before Lew's ruling. After some twists and turns, we finally released the book on January 3. Lew's verdict is expected on January 24, so we're glad we kept our promise.

MediaWatch has played an important role in confronting the Korean Council, especially in the courtroom. Can you elaborate? 

The courtroom battles primarily concern the application of the term "pro-North Korea" in connection to the [Korean Council] organization. While the Korean Council has unequivocally been pro-North since its inception, they refused to be labeled as such.

Yoon Mee Hyang, former head of the Korean Council, attends a Wednesday Rally in 2020. (©Justice for Comfort Women)

Since 2014, MediaWatch has been publishing articles exposing Yoon Mee Hyang and the organization's pro-North activities. In 2016, the organization filed a civil defamation lawsuit against some of our journalists. I was also sued by Yoon's husband, Kim San-seok, a key figure in the "Kim sibling spy incident." [In 1992, South Korean police apprehended Kim and his sister for violating the National Security Act. The two went to Japan, met with a North Korean agent, passed on sensitive documents, and received payments.]

Their preferred method of silencing non-conforming or inconvenient views was through the strategic application of South Korea's defamation laws. In this case, the barrage of legal attacks was tantamount to a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation [SLAPPs]. Regardless, MediaWatch prevailed in all cases.    

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Free Speech in South Korea

What is the current status of freedom of speech and publishing in South Korea? 

It's gradually getting worse. As a former elite prosecutor, President Yoon Suk-yeol is running a very tight censorship regime. Prosecutors under the incumbent administration increasingly resort to intimidating practices such as heavy-handed raids and search and seizure to suppress non-conforming views.

In fairness, this issue has also been prevalent under the former Moon Jae In administration. But it's ostensibly heading towards a bleaker path. Scholars and intellectuals holding heterodox viewpoints are also the target. Some academics like Song Dae-yup and Jee Man-won are serving actual jail time. 

The publishing industry is no different. Take, for instance, Park Yuha's case. Park was indicted in 2015 for publishing a book presenting new insights and solutions to the comfort women issue. Some found it offensive to their sensibilities. The court asked the author to redact 34 areas in the book if it were to remain in bookstores. Such an event is highly unprecedented and inconceivable in a liberal democratic society.  

Challenging the popular discourse on comfort women in South Korea comes at a huge price tag. There are deliberate attempts to silence and crush those who promote heterodox views. Can you explain the mechanism?  

Censorship is often accompanied by persistent and blatant harassment. When Ramseyer published "Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War," MBC and SBS, South Korea's leading television broadcasters, launched a series of onslaughts against him. Including JTBC, another mainstream broadcaster, the three outlets ran some 50 negative incidents of coverage on Ramseyer in just a month starting February 2021.

JTBC's coverage of Professor J Mark Ramseyer's paper.

The method used to silence domestic dissenters is via legal measures, but for foreigners like Ramseyer, oppressors often utilize the media.  

In fact, the decaying democratic norms in South Korea and the assault on our fundamental rights are the main reasons for publishing Ramseyer's book. I believe in fighting censorship and repression through more free speech. 

How should the defamation law change? 

I think the system needs to be improved to ensure that prosecutors do not abuse it to protect vested interests and the incumbent government or weaponize it to quash dissenters. At the same time, speech that clearly violates the law should be prosecuted. But courts should ultimately decide whether to convict or not. 

What constitutes speech law infringement and who decides is indeed a difficult question. The current system can be enhanced by establishing an independent review board to assess a case's merits before trial. Of course, this should be an open and public process. 

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Author: Kenji Yoshida

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