In South Korea, News Translation Draws Controversy

Display of Korean newspapers Seoul, South Korea, Friday, May 16, 2014. Photo Credit: AP Photo/Kyodo

Display of multiple Korean newspapers
Seoul, South Korea, Friday, May 16, 2014.
Photo Credit: AP Photo/Kyodo


A new website that translates foreign news reports into Korean has stirred political controversy in South Korea.

The foreign news articles that NewsPro ( translates occasionally reveal events South Korean media have ignored.

In January, for example, local villagers burned effigies of President Park Geun-hye and her Indian government host during Park’s visit to India – a story told on NewsPro, but not in South Korea’s mainstream media.

Likewise, news of a February protest in front of the Korean Consulate in San Francisco, defending a railworkers’ union banned by the government, could be read on NewsPro but not in mainstream media.

Some conservative journalists in South Korea have criticized the selection of articles drawn from global mainstream media, as well as citizen journalism news sites.

“There has been controversy as some media and the political sphere pointed out ‘Citizens Fighting for Social Justice’ (a name used by the NewsPro authors) as source of social media rumors,” wrote Ahn Yong-seong, a journalist for Segye Ilbo, a Korean Christian-based newspaper. “The head representative of the Saenuri Party Yoon Sang-hyeon said, ‘Lately unverifiable posts have been attributed as foreign press and are being spread rapidly across social media.’”

NewsPro launched in March 2014, though a version of the project had been available under the name “Citizens Fighting for Social Justice,” where six Korean Americans have been translating foreign news about South Korea on their Facebook page since June 2013.

The editorial staff say they started to translate and distribute foreign articles because despite the fact that South Korea ranked 50 out of 179 in Reporters Without Borders global press freedom rankings in 2013, they believed Korean press was being compromised by government control on mainstream media outlets.

“By translating and distributing foreign articles on political and social matters in South Korea, NewsPro is able to give their readers the opportunity to learn through unbiased and uncensored journalism,” theirwebsitestated.

But who exactly is behind the project is unclear. In an email exchange, NewsPro members responded to questions but refused to reveal their individual names, referring to themselves as the “NewsPro team.”

According to an interview with a South Korean online news site Ohmynews, only three members – Kyung Ji Lee, Eric Shin, and Og Lim have made their names public. All three live in the United States, and Lee revealed that she was a mother of two.

The team said some of the staff has had prior media experience. “In Newpro, there is a former publisher of a Korean American newspaper, and a media editor-in-chief, a professional translator, and a reporter,” the team said.

NewsPro translates foreign news from English, French, German, Japanese, and Chinese media into Korean. They have translated from news organizations such as The New York Times, CNN, BBC, Le Monde, and Die Zeit.

“The articles [to be translated] are selected based on discussions from our news team,” they wrote in an email response in Korean. “Our news team reads world news regularly and select foreign news that we feel should be heard.”

An instance where NewsPro provided news that mainstream Korean media didn’t cover was when President Park visited France in November 2013.

While Park’s visit to France was reported in Korea, mainstream media largely ignored the content of her speech, beyond her comments that France and Korea should cooperate economically. They also noted that she delivered her speech in French.

“President Park astonished the attendants by delivering a 13-page, A4-paper worth of speech in fluent French for twenty minutes,” wrote Chosun Ilbo, one of the largest conservative newspapers in the country.

“After [President Park’s] speech was over, about 120 French economists applauded for over three minutes, exclaiming ‘trés bien (very good)’, ‘Parfait (perfect)’, and ‘Super (super)’,” wrote Dong-a Ilbo, another major conservative newspaper.

Missing from the mainstream narrative was news that NewsPro translated from a Le Monde article, which reported that Park promised to open South Korea’s public sectors to foreign businesses, as well as to abolish non-tariff barriers.

The potential privatization of public sector industry is a politically polarizing issue in South Korea, and the failure to report on it raised speculation that South Korea’s mainstream media were concealing information.

Park’s January visit to India also got coverage in The New Indian Express that did not appear in South Korean media. An Express article reported that villagers in Dhinkia protested Park’s visit to India because they were opposed to the decision of the Ministry of Environment and Forest giving environmental clearance on a forest for a project in Posco, a South Korean steel company.

“At a meeting held to chalk out strategy of protest, president of Posco Pratirodha Sangram Samiti (PPSS) Abhay Sahu said the villagers have decided take out a rally and burn effigies of [Union Minister for Environment and Forest] Moily and Geun-Hye at Dhinkia,” said the article, which was translated and published on NewsPro.

Charles K. Armstrong, a history professor at Columbia University, said that while South Korean media is fairly independent by world standards, there is still significant government influence in mainstream media.

“I think that there is a sense of political pressure on major news outlets to conform to a more pro-government position, and particularly on sensitive issues like national security and North Korea,” he said. “It’s probably not overt censorship, I don’t think so, but an understanding that there are certain ways of telling stories and certain limits in how they can be covered.”

Although much of what NewsPro translates is noncontroversial, the translated articles that are critical of the current government have prompted criticism from conservative media.

In February 4, Chosun Ilbo journalist Chae Seong-jin pointed out several instances where NewsPro translated articles from Global Voices, arguing that Newpro exaggerates information because Global Voices is a citizen media blog rather than a news organization, and that most Global Voices articles related to South Korea were written by one Korean American blogger.

“Citizens Fighting for Social Justice are in the center of dubbing unverified articles as so-called ‘foreign press’ and bringing them into Korea,” Chae wrote. “Lee Jun-woong, a media professor from Seoul University, said ‘They are using the Koreans’ opinions that foreign press would be more objective and truthful.’”

However, the Chosun Ilbo drew criticism as an article they wrote in December 2013 was found citing Newspro as a source while introducing a translated article from The Huffington Post.

Based on the English translations in NewsPro, the NewsPro team appears to translate foreign press accurately without biased language. But NewsPro almost always adds a short editorial before the translated article. They said that there is a separate person who writes the editorial, although the translators will sometimes write it themselves.

“[We are] providing a commentary and brief analysis of the translated article to help readers better understand the material,” they said in Korean.

However, some of the government-related articles use strong language to criticize the government and may affect how a reader approaches the translated news.

In April 21, 2014, NewsPro translated the Wall Street Journal article, “Was Park Right to Condemn Ferry Crew?“, which polled readers whether they thought Park was right in publicly condemning the ferry crew for the South Korean ferry disaster, which some thought was an attempt to deflect attention from the government’s handling of the incident. (87% responded that Park should not have condemned the crew.)

NewsPro wrote in their editorial that the WSJ had criticized Park for her statements.

“[Park is a] president without legitimacy, without qualification or ability, and it is as if she is becoming a subject of ridicule by the foreign press,” NewsPro wrote.

The original Journal article only explained the controversy surrounding Park’s comments and did not make judgments on any side.

Armstrong said a project like NewsPro can help promote media diversity in South Korea.

“[Korean media had] a problem of inaccuracy or not checking sources very carefully, so I think it’s a good idea that South Koreans get other sources of news and also to work on improving both the freedom and the accuracy of South Korean media coverage as well.”