[Column] Lee Sun-kyun deserved a better ending than this

Posted on : 2024-01-02 18:13 KST Modified on : 2024-01-02 18:26 KST
When an actor dies by suicide after his private life has been made public, should those who profited off clicks on stories about him be let off the hook?
A funeral portrait of actor Lee Sun-kyun sits among flowers at his wake, held at the funeral hall of Seoul National University Hospital. (pool photo)
A funeral portrait of actor Lee Sun-kyun sits among flowers at his wake, held at the funeral hall of Seoul National University Hospital. (pool photo)

By Kim Young-hee, executive editor

The news of actor Lee Sun-kyun’s passing broke during our morning editorial meeting on Wednesday. For a brief moment, I sincerely wished that the reporters had gotten it wrong.

Would things have turned out differently if he had been a more shameless person? The images of Lee standing outside police stations and addressing the press, of him admitting his wrongdoings and trying to brave the clamorous investigation and news coverage over the past two months would not leave my mind.

I am surely not the only person to feel a mixture of sadness, grief and a sense of anger that they struggled to name.
I belatedly looked up a YouTube clip of KBS News 9 that had been broadcast on Nov. 24, 2023.
In two reports emblazoned with the word “exclusive,” KBS played snippets of private phone calls Lee had with the manager of a nightlife business — the contents of which were completely unrelated to the allegations against Lee — as well as the statement this individual reportedly made to the police. The program’s anchor also had a reporter covering the story appear in the studio for a televised discussion of the issue afterward.
Following Lee’s death, the YouTube comment sections for those reports and others related to Lee’s case on the KBS channel were closed, but the videos continue to circulate. There is a video that is also 12 hours long, with the 7 or so minutes of footage about Lee repeating on a loop.
Where does the need to make such videos come from? Why do they keep getting made? Should they be allowed to continue to be played at all?
The night before Lee’s death, the right-wing YouTube channel HoverLab Inc. posted more recorded phone calls between Lee and the nightlife business manager. On the day of Lee’s death, the channel posted a message on its community page expressing its condolences to the bereaved while also claiming that it was justified in publishing the recordings.
In a video posted a few days later, HoverLab said that YouTube channels like its own that had been raising suspicions about Lee were the true new media taking down the old media. It also spouted the nonsensical idea that “leftist Koreans” in the Korea bureaus of foreign news outlets were to blame for mentioning the Yoon administration’s “war on drugs” in international press coverage of Lee’s death.
No one can deny that intentionally humiliating investigations by law enforcement agencies that leak the details of suspected crimes that are still being investigated, along with the sensationalism of YouTube and the race to get the most clicks by media outlets that have given up on their responsibilities to society, are behind Lee’s death.
While the individual influence of traditional media has diminished, the ability to shape public opinion by competing with each other on topical issues has become more powerful in the age of portal sites and YouTube. According to Slow News and Kyunghyang Shinmun, there were 2,820 reports with the keywords “Lee Sun-kyun” and “drugs” from 54 outlets from Oct. 19 to Dec. 26 on the Korea Press Foundation’s newspaper database (KINDS). When expanded to include Naver’s news portal, the number reached 14,118.
The fact that Hankyoreh wrote so little on the issue does little to quell my sense of disgust. Moreover, the primetime news coverage of Lee’s private phone calls goes to show that there is little to no distance between public broadcasting and far-right YouTube coverage.
In recent times, I’ve had a renewed realization of the sorry state of the media while serving as a member of the ethics committee of the Korea Press Ethics Commission, a self-regulatory organization for journalism outlets. The committee reviews hundreds of articles and advertisements a month that violate the code of press ethics and the suicide reporting guidelines, and there are always repeat offenders.
But while at least the 268 member companies who have pledged to comply with the code are subject to self-regulation and media arbitration laws, there is no such thing for YouTube channels that act as pseudo-media outlets.
But does this mean we should make the government directly regulate or censor platforms or their content? To do so would only push the freedom of speech and expression to the edge at a time when it is already at risk under the pretense of fighting “fake news.”
On the day of Lee’s death, lyricist Kim Ea-na posted on social media. In her post, she confessed that she felt that while the disclosure of Lee’s private affairs and investigation into alleged drug use had been excessive, she had also dismissed such reports as mere tabloid gossip. That sentiment resonated with me.
“As someone who was not a malicious commenter nor someone who was totally invested in the issue, I was somewhere in the middle. I feel like that almost makes me the most cowardly of anyone,” she wrote. “All I want is to, somehow, become a better person.”
The post was deleted within hours after some commenters criticized her message as blaming the public for the actor’s fate.
I don’t agree with the opinion that Kim’s post blamed the public for what happened to Lee or that the admission of personal feelings of cowardice masks structural problems. A society that respects our humanity is not achieved solely by overhauling laws and institutions. It’s not as if we don’t already have a ban on publicizing details of ongoing investigations, guidelines on photographing those accused, and media arbitration laws.
Kim’s post resonated with me because I believe that the greatest power to make a change and prevent any further such tragedies lies with the public, who long to become better people and want to live in a society made up of such people.
We can’t change society by staying silent. The public has the power to generate powerful pressure on platforms like Google to shut down channels that perpetuate hate and human rights abuses, and can call out media outlets that hide behind the phrase “matters of great public concern” while neglecting to question how we define public figures and how to uphold human rights.
An acquaintance’s Facebook post has lingered on my mind. “‘Is it my place to do something, even if I didn’t know them personally?’ This kind of thinking is what contributes to so many deaths all around us. Just because you’re not actually dead means that death is never coming. Anger, disillusionment, indifference, and the refusal to hold out a hand to someone in need is what brings death. Some are snatched away quickly by death, while others die away slowly, but neither can be said to be truly alive in any sense.”

I pray that Lee Sun-kyun and his family may find peace.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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