Samsung Sues Satirist, Claiming Criminal Defamation, Over Satirical Column Poking Fun At Samsung

from the thin-skinned? dept

Mel alerts us to this story of Korean electronics giant, Samsung, and its decision to sue a freelance writer who penned a satirical Christmas column that poked fun at Samsung’s well-known corruption and bribery issues. The writer, Michael Breen, a UK native who’s been living in South Korea for a dozen years, wrote an English-language light satire (in English) for the Korea Times, where he joked about what sorts of presents public figures might send to others:

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.”

As satire goes, it seems pretty tame (and, really, not that funny). But, Samsung went ballistic, suing Breen, the Korea Times and its top editor for both civil and criminal libel charges. Supposedly, after Korea Times ran a “clarification” that was written by Samsung itself, the paper and its editor were dropped from the lawsuit, but the suit against Breen remains. And, since there are criminal charges, not only could he face hefty fines (perhaps $1 million), he might also face jailtime. For writing a satirical Christmas day column. Tough audience.

Apparently, Korean defamation laws aren’t just draconian, but they’re also downright ridiculous. Truth? Not a defense. Satire? Not a defense. Basically, if anything you say harms someone’s reputation, you’ve defamed them. Even if it’s true or you’re just making a joke. As the LA Times notes, Samsung says it needs to do this to protect its reputation worldwide:

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.

Uh, perhaps there’s just a cultural mistranslation, but the stories about Samsung’s corruption and bribery scandals are pretty widely known. Nothing in that column was going to change that. And, I would argue that, outside of South Korea, filing this ridiculous, petty and vindictive lawsuit over a joke is much more likely to harm Samsung’s reputation than the original column (which was probably barely read outside of South Korea). And, doesn’t something seem completely wrong when Samsung seems more concerned that its reputation will be harmed more by satire about its well-known and well-documented bribery and corruption scandals than the actual bribery and corruption scandals. If the problem is Samsung’s “reputation” on the line, then perhaps the company should have thought of that before getting involved in massive bribery and corruption efforts…

The article also notes how this is basically a sign of how dominant Samsung is in South Korea, and how it more or less has power over the newspapers, suggesting that no one is ever willing to criticize them — and that it’s really using this lawsuit as a warning shot. If true, that’s a huge shame for South Korea. If a company is bullying people for just making jokes, just imagine what sort of shenanigans it goes through for people who are actually uncovering serious misdeeds at the company.

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Companies: samsung

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Comments on “Samsung Sues Satirist, Claiming Criminal Defamation, Over Satirical Column Poking Fun At Samsung”

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baditup (profile) says:

Re: Re:

HAAAAAAAHAHAHAHA, I was listening to Bob & Tom this morning and one of their guests invented a drinking game. Basically you just point at someone and say “YOU DRINK NOW!” haha…

On topic, Samsung makes good shit, imho. Cheap, halfway reliable (oh shit, is that defamation? strike that) stuff. Their products are excellent but after reading this nonsense I’m going to have to actively avoid purchasing Samsung Erectronics (oops, faux pa, not defamation!) and I do quite a bit of purchasing for my TV station. Sad. Makes me glad I live somewhere where speech is relatively free… m/

Armanda Morales says:

Re: Draconian (drink)

Samsung getting uptight over satire to me is more damaging to their reputation than anything somebody says. I personally think that all free speech should be legal, even defamation on DirtyPhoneBook and other attack websites. It’s hard to understand why people think that free speech should ever be illegal. I just don’t get that.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Who knew?

Tell me about it. I only knew Samsung as the electronics company.

I just now found out that Samsung name translates as “three stars”. I didn’t even know which side of the Sea of Japan/Korea straits Samsung is based on.
In addition in learning all that, I also know that Samsung have significant issues with corruption and bribery.

I learn something new everyday. I’m not sure if their marketing department wanted me learn so much about their company in this manner.

Fushta says:

Doesn't Matter to Me

If taking bribes helps them to continue to make a quality TV/et al, then I don’t care. That’s between them and the S Korean law enforcement officials.

Suing this writer doesn’t change my view of Samsung at all. If the cultural meme in S Korea is that you don’t joke like this, then he’s crossed the line (again for the law enforcement/courts to decide). I’ll still buy Samsung stuff.

Blaine says:

Re: glad I don't live there

Good to fair products versus bad behavior is not a problem if you don’t live in Korea. If South Korea wants to get the same reputation as Saudi Arabia, this is a good way to do it.
I feel sorry for Koreans that have this kind of problem hanging over their necks, like a curse. Yeah guy, buy another SS box since you don’t care — you’re free to be as ignorant as you want to be.

Chuck Norris' Enemy (deceased) (profile) says:


Samsung has been pretty good to me. Had a digital camcorder crap out on me which was not repairable. They sent us a new (later model also) for free. The only thing we paid was the $6 to ship the old unit to the repair shop. Also have a 5.1 dvd surround system from them. A few buttons on the remote stopped working. You could buy a new one for $60 but a simple call and they sent a new one free. And both these products were over 3 years beyond the warranty. Great customer service! I suppose the S.Korean government is a customer, too. =)

ZenKimchi (profile) says:

One of the last democracies with CRIMINAL libel laws

Three years ago this month, I ran afoul of South Korea’s antiquated libel laws. My ex-employer had neglected to pay me my last month’s wages on top of other fees, which is unfortunately a common practice in Korea. I was one of the few people who wouldn’t take it lying down and went to the Labor Board to file a complaint. Most expats don’t do this because they don’t understand the procedures or their rights. So I posted on my blog how we did it. The problem was that I had the employer’s name on my site. I ended up having to be locked in a room at the police station, interrogated like a terrorist with a translator who could barely speak English (they wouldn’t let me bring my own translator). I was found partially guilty, not fully guilty. My web site wasn’t famous enough. But it did take a bite out of my winnings from my ex-employer in the end.

During the ordeal, I learned that South Korea is one of the last remaining democracies with criminal libel still on the books–a holdover from the dictatorship that ended in the ’80s. It’s now used by the corrupt to prosecute any and all whistleblowers or anyone who states the truth.

I found it a sad irony that my employer stealing money from me was just a civil case. But saying that my employer stole money from me was a crime.

The focus on the story should not only be on Samsung but on Korea’s backward criminal libel laws. With South Korea trying to get acceptance as a global player on the stage of democratic nations, these types of laws need to be stricken from the books.

For a very disturbing case regarding the libel laws, google the case of Stephanie White and the death of her son Mike, and how she can go to jail if she even mentions the notion that her son was murdered.

Anonymous Coward says:

This is Mike Breen. Samsung executives made it clear they never wanted this case to go to court. Why? Bad PR. They just wanted me to keep quiet, grovel and promise not to be a naughty boy again. Maybe I was closer to a big fine or something, but I felt all along I was really just being threatened by what actually happened to Joe.

On another note, I see in the story up top you say my jokes were not funny. I might have to take out a criminal suit here… Out of context, they’re not. But then, nor is a Ricky Gervais script. Believe me, they struck me as really not funny during the interrogation by the prosecutor, when they went one-by-one through all 17 jokes in the column and asked if I had checked the facts before writing them. When I said there was nothing to check, the prosecutor said, “But, they’re not funny if they’re not true.” “Come again?” I ejaculated

Peter Blaise (profile) says:

Just repeating prior reputation.

“… if anything you say harms someone’s reputation, you’ve defamed them …”


“… stories about Samsung’s corruption and bribery scandals are pretty widely known …”

The joke harm their reputation, they made their reputation themselves, and he just commented on the reputation they built themselves, so I hope he defends himself well based on that.

shigzeo (user link) says:

Samsung is all that

I live in South Korean and I can tell you that the article doesn’t even begin to touch on what Samsung are up to. They are NOT an electronics company. They got into that like 50 years later. They started as a fishing company then got lucky when in rebuilding mode, South Korea decided to give lord’s rights to the company.

They are now the largest company in the world, but in Korea, they are far far above anything else. For instance, most of my groceries are bought from Samsung. They make cars, bicycles, food, homes,hotels, everything. At the same time, they bribe politicians, and even allow the sale of illegal CD/DVDs at their supermarkets.

If you buy Samsung and you think that is a good thing, it is because you live so far from the corruption that has kept this country basically in the protectionist dark ages. Only in 2009 were foreign phones allowed into South Korea. Why? Samsung afraid of the competition.

I get sick every time I see a foreign person buying something from them, or from their affiliates like Best Buy in the USA. It is sad, disgusting, and certainly scary.

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