Journalists Concerned as More Cases of Gov't Snooping on Phone Records Come to Light

  • By Nina Pasquini, Chosun Ilbo intern reporter

    January 11, 2022 11:41

    When TV Chosun journalist Chung Dong-kwon found out a state investigative agency had searched his phone records, he wasn't shocked. It is relatively common for investigative agencies such as the police and the prosecution to collect phone records of citizens in Korea without a warrant. So while Chung was somewhat startled, he knew that such an occurrence wasn't out of the question.

    The surprise came when he learned that the agency had searched the phone records of not only journalists, but also some of their family members. "That's a whole different terrain," said Chung, who's been a journalist for over 18 years. "I've never seen this happen before."

    In recent weeks, a growing number of journalists, civilians, and politicians have learned that their phone records have been accessed by an investigative agency that was created last January to investigate corruption among high-ranking government officials.

    Chung is one of over 120 journalists from over 22 media outlets who are known to have had their communication data queried by the agency, known as the Corruption Investigation Office for High-Ranking Officials (CIO).

    For many, the extent of the CIO's inquiry is worrying because of its allegedly "indiscriminate" scope, extending even to civilians and foreign correspondents. The news has sparked concerns about press freedom in Korea. It has also renewed scrutiny around a law that allows investigative agencies to access phone records without a warrant.

    "It's crucial for journalists to be able to protect their sources," said Jean H. Lee, a former Pyongyang bureau chief for the Associated Press and a senior fellow at the Wilson Center. "Ordering telecommunications companies to hand over phone logs should not be allowed or tolerated as a routine practice in a democratic society -- only as a part of a specific criminal investigation or national security issue."

    In addition to domestic journalists, the CIO has inquired into the data of journalists from at least four foreign media outlets -- Asahi Shimbun, Mainichi Shimbun, Tokyo Shimbun, and the Nikkei, all based in Japan. In early January, the Japanese paper Mainichi Shimbun learned that the CIO collected information on three of its reporters based in Seoul, two of whom are Japanese nationals. "We're really concerned. When a government agency checks the phone records of journalists, freedom of speech is endangered," a Seoul correspondent at Mainichi said. "Finding out that the government is checking our activities is terrifying."


    Under Korea's relevant media laws, investigative agencies such as the CIO can demand users' phone records if the agency deems those records necessary for investigation, trials, sentencing, or national security. Upon request from an investigative agency, a telephone company must provide a user's name, resident registration number, address, mobile plan start date, and communication history. Communication history includes the phone numbers of incoming and outgoing calls. The investigative office is not required to receive a warrant or explain the nature of the investigation.

    When Mainichi asked the CIO why it searched its reporters' information, the CIO responded that it conducted the searches for the purpose of an investigation, not to monitor news gathering. The CIO did not specify the details of the investigation. "Just citing 'investigative exigencies' does not dispel concerns over threats to freedom of the press," a public relations official at Mainichi said in response. "We demand that the agency provide additional explanation about how and why it made the information request, and that it never commit similar acts in the future."

    Lee, the former AP bureau chief, also said she believes the CIO should be more transparent regarding the purpose of its queries. "I think the CIO owes journalists and the public a detailed explanation for the practice," she said.

    When a person's phone records are accessed, they do not automatically receive a notification. To find out whether one's records have been accessed, a person must submit a disclosure request to their telephone company. Upon a disclosure request, the company must tell the person which investigative agencies have checked their data within the past year and when. Because of this mechanism, a person does not know if their phone records were checked unless they proactively seek out the information. It is almost certain that there are more cases than have been reported thus far.

    According to a foreign correspondent for an American media company, the recent revelations have set off a flurry of other foreign correspondents checking to see if their own phone records have also been queried. Three members of the Seoul Foreign Correspondents' Club, which seeks to defend media rights, told Chosun Ilbo that SFCC leadership has sent out a notification about the recent events to its members.

    In the notification, the SFCC said that the CIO has collected the phone records of a number of SFCC members. The club also asked members to let the board know if they learn that the CIO has accessed their telephone records.

    In light of the CIO's failure to specify the details of its investigations, many journalists are left to wonder how they might be connected to potential CIO probes. "The CIO was created to monitor high-ranking officials," said a TV Chosun journalist whose communication history was checked by the CIO four times. "So my initial reaction was: Why me?"

    The CIO not only looked into her phone records, but also some of her family members'. Other journalists at TV Chosun and the newspaper Joongang Ilbo have also learned that the CIO looked into their family's phone records. The CIO checked the phone records of one TV Chosun journalist's mother, a housewife, and her younger sister, an office worker. "My mom and my sister are just ordinary citizens," she said. "My mom was really scared, and my sister was scared for me."

    Journalists at Joongang Ilbo have alleged that the CIO has been checking phone records to identify the sources of leaks to the media. On Jan. 9, Joongang Ilbo reported that the CIO checked a KakaoTalk chat room where over 70 of the paper's journalists and editors made editorial decisions. These allegations have raised concerns that the CIO's actions violate press freedom and will discourage whistleblowers from coming forward in the future.

    The CIO has claimed that its data requests were legitimate because the people whose phones they checked had phone conversations with people linked to its ongoing investigations. But according to the TV Chosun journalist, her family members are civilians and had no conversations with high-ranking officials.

    Because the CIO has checked even the phone records of journalists' family members, Chung and the TV Chosun journalist said they suspect that journalists themselves are the target of the investigations, rather than high-ranking officials. "When an investigative agency has a prime suspect, they usually check the phone records of the suspect and their close contacts the day of, the day before, and the day after an incident," Chung said. "Because that was the case for our journalists, I believe that journalists were the subject of investigation."

    Chosun Ilbo asked the CIO to respond to the allegation that the CIO is investigating journalists and news-gathering procedures rather than high-ranking officials. "The CIO is conducting investigations in accordance with due process, and it is difficult to provide specific details of each ongoing investigation," an official wrote. "However, as we have stated in our official position, please be aware that we are working on ways to improve investigation practices, such as an internal inspection of communication queries."

    Critics have also accused the CIO of focusing disproportionately on the opposition People Power Party and opponents of President Moon Jae-in. Around 80 out of 105 opposition party members in the National Assembly have reported that the CIO has searched their phone records. The CIO has also queried the communication history of the PPP presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol, as well as his wife Kim Keon-hee.

    As of Jan. 10, neither the ruling Minjoo Party presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung nor any MP lawmakers have reported that their communication history has been queried.

    The article of the media laws that allows investigative agencies to access phone records without a warrant has long been criticized on the grounds that it violates privacy.

    Similar criticisms about the collection of phone records have been leveled against the police and the prosecution, including during PPP presidential candidate Yoon's tenure as prosecutor-general.

    "Over the decades, we have seen domestic media reports that Korean prosecutors and other law enforcement have been collecting phone records on Korean citizens," said an American media reporter who requested anonymity because he requires clearance from his media outlet to speak to other media.

    But some journalists said they believe the extent of the CIO's recent queries -- especially its querying of foreign correspondents -- has been cause for particular concern. "The CIO investigates crimes of high-ranking officials. So why is it searching Japanese media?" the Mainichi correspondent said. "I've never heard of government agencies checking the phone records of Mainichi journalists. This is really the first time for us."

    On Jan. 3, on Chosun Ilbo's YouTube channel, Cheong Wa Dae spokesman Park Soo-hyun claimed that the CIO's communication queries are standard procedure for investigative agencies. He noted that, as of last June, the police had looked into 1.8 million phone records and the prosecution 600,000. The CIO checked 135.

    Park did not provide a more recent number that includes the searches the CIO has conducted since June. Many of the queries that have recently come to light -- including those on journalists from Mainichi, Nikkei, and Joongang Ilbo -- happened later than June.

    For many, the widespread nature of communication data query by the government does not excuse the CIO. Rather, it is cause for large-scale reform.

    The National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK) has criticized the collection of phone logs by investigative agencies since as early as 2014. Last Thursday, Song Doo-hwan, the chief of the NHRCK, issued a statement urging the government to enact new systems and legislation to prevent human rights violations in the collection of phone records. Song called the current requirements for government agencies to demand communication history "too broad." Song also noted that the United Nations has recommended that Korea improve its phone data collection measures three times in 2015, 2017, and 2019.

    Another Chosun Ilbo reporter whose phone records were checked said he worries that the CIO's actions threaten the ability of journalists to report news accurately and thoroughly. "The way a journalist acquires their information is private," he said. "If the government looks at our phone records, it can guess what we're onto and what we're going to release next."

    The Mainichi correspondent said he also worries that the CIO's actions threaten the foundations of a free press. "We simply have to protect the people who cooperated with us. This is the basis of journalism," he said. "We totally don't know why our staff were targeted. But we believe it should not be repeated again."

    Jung Ye-lim contributed reporting.

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