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Conservative Pundit Sues South Korea's Saturday Night Live TV Show

There's nothing funny about the rocky legal road ahead for South Korean political satire.

A conservative pundit who was lampooned on the program has filed a lawsuit against the country's version of the American comedy showSaturday Night Live (SNL) Korea was attacked by conservative pundit and media critic Byun Hee-jae (@pyein2) over its latest Weekend Update segment, a fake news program sprinkled with witty commentary.

The segment's host called him “an attention seeker who, though said to have a job, we have no idea what he really does” and nominated him as the “Weirdo of the Week”.

Byun, who is notorious for baiting prominent liberals by calling them “pro-North”, which implies a North Korean sympathizer, announced via Twitter [ko] on May 6, 2013 that he will sue the show for defamation. Byun later widened his attack [ko], assailing the show for distributing what he defined “illegal news” that “manipulate public opinion” by siding with liberal agenda:

@pyein2: TVN SNL코리아 다운받아보니 심각하군요. 최일구가 국정원 댓글을 부풀려 조롱하며[...]  저런 여론조작질을 벌이고 있나요. 버릇을 고쳐놔야 돼요.

@pyein2: After I downloaded [and watched several episodes of] SNL Korea which aired on [cable channel] tvN, I found the problem much more grave than I thought. Choi Il-gu [who hosts the Weekend Update section] jeered at the NIS [spy agency electioneering] case and exaggerated it [...] and the show manipulated public opinion. This bad behavior needs to be fixed.

SNL Korea

Promotional Poster of Saturday Night Live Korea. Copyright belongs to SNL Korea. Image hosted by Wikimedia, Qualifies as Fair Use (Non commercial, to provide commentary on the show)

Byun reaction to the segment was ridiculed online. Some net users, pointing out that this sort of attack on political satire happens quite frequently, reminded people [ko] of the nation's poor performance on the press freedom index.

According to Press Freedom Index by Freedom House, South Korea ranked 68th in 2012 and 64th in 2013 out of 127 countries:

ID jiso****: 이러니 언론 자유가 60몇 위? 아프리카 어디 개발도상국보다 순위가 낮다며? 이러니까 그런 순위가 뜨는 거야.

ID jiso****: This is exactly why South Korea’s press freedom is ranked around 60th. We rated lower than some random developing countries in the African continent. [*note: The word "African continent" was used to refer some countries that felt very remote and unfamiliar] This explains our rank.

Website K-pop Decoder site explained how SNL Korea quickly rose to prominence. Since it airs on a cable channel, which is less bound by strict guidelines imposed on network TV shows, SNL Korea can try more risque political satire and bold sexual jokes.

Businessman Yeontaek Chang (@jaykaz) accused Byun and people like him of damaging the country's development of a political sense of humor:

@jaykaz: SNL Korea는 쾌재를 부르고 있겠구나. 아무리 나쁘게 생각해보려고 해도, 왜 문제가 되는지 모르겠단 말씀. 그리고 이왕 고소를 할거면 첨 시작했을 때부터 하시지. 이런 듣보잡때문에 우리나라 시사풍자 미디어가 발전하지 못하는거다.

@jaykaz: SNL Korea would now be totally elated. Even though I tried really hard to take it badly, I still can't perceive it as “problematic”. If Byun really wanted to sue them, he should have sued them when the program launched. These sorts of “nobody” [referring to 'A person of no importance or authority' and also Byun's nickname given by his critics] have seriously stunted the growth of our nation's political satire.

Prominent and controversial culture critic Jin Joong-kwon (@unheimtweeted [ko]:

@unheim: 공식화법 “‘SNL코리아'는 풍자가 주요 소재인 프로그램이다. 판단은 시청자의 몫.” 이를 우리에게 익숙한 일상화법으로 번역하면, “똥개야 짖어라, 기차는 간다.”

@unheim: SNL’s official response read “Satire is one of the major elements of SNL Korea. It is entirely up to viewers to decide.” If I translate this into colloquial “You, dog, bark as you want. But the train will run [on schedule] – no matter what.”

Jin later added [ko] that he can't wait to watch next week's episode since Byun has voluntarily became a great source for political sketches.

Invasion of Fake News

Image by Flickr user Free Press Pics (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Meanwhile, Korean Twitter user @sungjinyang linked to a Quora post explaining why the original SNL rarely gets sued for defamation – Cliff Gilley answered, “Because what SNL does is considered ‘parody'” it is afforded “one of the highest levels of protection” and SNL sketches will not be considered defamation since they are not ”a claim expressly stated or claimed to be factual”.

However, this simple reasoning is not being applied in South Korea. Several months earlier on January 31, 2013, the Korea Communications Standards Commission reprimanded [ko] the nation's wildly popular sketch comedy show Gag Concert for not using honorific terms and employing insolent tone when addressing the country's current president, thus violating the decency of broadcasting. One of the online reactions read as below:

@sigolnonbu: [...] 개그의 본령이 풍자라는 사실을 망각한 채 개그맨의 말투 등을 꼬투리 삼아 징계를 내린 것. 황당하고 한심스럽다. http://j.mp/YhK7mo 

@sigolnonbu: Forgetting that the essence of comedy is a satire, they reprimanded comedians over such a petty thing– their tone. This is so ridiculous and pathetic. (link to relevant article)

SNL Korea staff said [ko] that after they experienced Byun's threat, they now feel even more thankful to all the presidential candidates who have featured in their sketches for not taking their jokes too seriously.

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