In his Christmas Day 2009 column for the Korea Times, Michael Breen decided to lampoon such national newsmakers as President Lee Myung-bak and the pop idol Rain.
FOR THE RECORD:
South Korean lawsuit: An article in Monday's Section A on a defamation lawsuit filed by Samsung Electronics against the writer of a column in the Korea Times said that Sisa In magazine reported in November 2007 that a former lawmaker had told it she received a golf bag from Samsung containing about $10,000 in cash. The report was published in 2008, and the bag allegedly contained $100,000, according to the magazine. —
Headlined "What People Got for Christmas," the English-language column also poked fun at global technology giant Samsung Electronics, referring to past bribery scandals as well as perceptions that its leaders are arrogant.
The piece was meant as a satirical spoof, the columnist says, but Samsung wasn't laughing.
Breen's column ran as local media reported that President Lee would soon pardon Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-hee on a 2008 conviction for tax evasion. Chairman Lee, 68, had already received a federal pardon in the 1990s on a conviction for bribing two former presidents while he was with the firm.
On Dec. 29, the day of Lee's pardon, Samsung sued the freelance columnist, the newspaper and its top editor for $1 million, claiming damage to its reputation and potential earnings. After the Korea Times ran clarifications, the newspaper and its editor were dropped from the suit.
But Samsung continues to pursue Breen personally for libel, both civilly and on criminal charges that he intentionally libeled the company. If convicted, he faces a hefty fine and even jail time.
"The reason I'm being sued is that the beast roared," said Breen, 57, a British native and longtime social commentator and South Korean resident who wrote a 1998 book on South Korea's modern history.
In its suit, Samsung said the column used a "mocking tone" to add "baseless, malicious and offensive false information to criticize" the firm.
After Samsung complained, the paper ran two clarifications, one of which Breen says he was told by editors was written by Samsung.
Legal experts here say the case underscores the considerable power wielded in South Korean society by such mammoth corporate conglomerates, known as chaebols, which are dominated by top officials, often related, who are treated here as near-royalty.
In a nation where reporters are often discouraged from highlighting chaebol transgressions, some say Samsung's pursuit of Breen is intended as a warning.
The message: Even when joking, don't mess with the chaebols.
"In South Korea, it's considered taboo to criticize the chaebols," said Kim Ky-won, professor of economics at Korea National Open University. "They hold very close to absolute power."
Most critical stories run in smaller media less dependent on ads from big companies. Major media reports are mostly limited to breaking news of prosecutions of chaebol leaders but seldom probe deeper, critics say.
"Samsung has financial power over the press. They're their own sanctuary where no one can intervene or criticize them," said Kim Keon-ho, an official at the Citizens' Coalition for Economic Justice.
Breen, who now owns a Seoul public relations firm and wrote "The Koreans: Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies," also pens occasional newspaper columns in English and Korean.
The Christmas Day column imagined what gifts public figures in the news might send. "I wanted to give people a laugh at Christmas," Breen said. "One of the prices of being a public figure is to be the occasional butt of a joke."
One item read that Samsung had sent to all employees photographs of the son of the firm's chairman with instructions for hanging the photo next to one of his father — an allusion to North Korea's Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.
Breen also wrote that Samsung, "the rock upon which the Korean economy rests, sent traditional year-end cards offering best wishes for 2010 to the country's politicians, prosecutors and journalists along with [$50,000] gift certificates."
Samsung said the comments go beyond the definition of satire allowed under South Korean law.
The lawsuit refers to Breen as a Korean "specialist" with wide-ranging influence. Since 80% of its revenues are from overseas, the firm is sensitive to any "minor accident or mistake" that could adversely affect its international reputation, the suit said.
"Even though anyone who read or heard of this article knows that this is not true, they can mention this as a joke, which can be spread easily, so its damage is very serious," the lawsuit read.
In South Korea, experts say, "Saturday Night Live"-style satire is not a common form of humor.
Additionally, both South Korean civil and criminal codes regarding defamation are stricter than in many other countries, including the U.S., said Brendon Carr, an American attorney who practices in Seoul.
"In South Korea, injury to one's reputation is the key element, not the truth," he said. "The fact that a statement is true is not an absolute defense. Satire is not a defense. That's different from the American definition. America is a free speech society, whereas Korea is not. It has historically been a 'sit down and shut up' society."
Punishment here is tougher if the statement is not true. "But you're punished in all cases for revealing things that injure someone's reputation," Carr said. "If you say, 'Look out for Jim. He's a crook. He swindled me,' that's a crime in South Korea. And people use it. Defamation may be the No. 1 criminal complaint here."
In the U.S., a person can be held liable for defamation against a public figure or company only if the statements are false and uttered maliciously.
"Breen's background is as a columnist writing for an English-speaking audience with liberal attitudes toward permissible speech," Carr said. "Where he ran into trouble is when he tweaked a Korean organization that decided to use the legal tools they would use against any Korean."
In recent years, the local news media have published several reports of people alleging that Samsung offered them money.
In 2008, Sisa In magazine reported that a former lawmaker told it that she received an unusual campaign contribution from Samsung: a golf bag containing thousands of dollars in cash. She returned it.
FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version of this article gave the date that the Sisa In report appeared as November 2007 and the figure as $10,000 in cash. The correct date is 2008 and the correct figure is thousands of dollars.
Samsung Chairman Lee was most recently pardoned on a tax evasion conviction for having hidden hundreds of millions of dollars in aides' bank accounts.
The day after Breen's column ran, the Korea Times ran a short front-page clarification, acknowledging that the "column was misleading." About a month later, the editors contacted him with a second clarification they said was written by Samsung officials, Breen said. The newspaper initially represented him in its effort to settle the matter, but he has since been left to defend himself, he said.
The newspaper declined to comment on the case.
Breen says he has been advised to just apologize to Samsung.
"But in all conscience, I don't know whom to apologize to and what I'd be apologizing for," he said. "Anyway, since when do the rich and powerful get to determine what's funny?"