Korean Censorship and the Freedom of Speech

I did not write this but I thought that it was interesting enough to repost and let others know about Korea, blogging, and the dangers of speaking one’s mind.

From Korean Rum Diary:

On Freedom of Speech

On May 15th, the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Opinion and Expression Frank La Rue gave a talk at Yonsei University in Seoul, regarding the issue of free speech in South Korea. Mr. La Rue mentioned that his interest in Korea stemmed from its high levels of internet connectivity, and said that Korea should set an example to the rest of the world in terms of internet issues. He described bloggers as “reporters” and talked about the necessity of allowing freedom of speech online.

These are ideas that should be obvious to any intelligent person. Freedom of speech is a cornerstone of a civilized society, and whilst it can be problematic, it needs to be defended. People have died throughout history in defense of free speech, and with the internet we are today provided with a brilliant opportunity to share with the world.

This opportunity, however, is fraught with difficulties. Free speech can be a dangerous thing. It can challenge societal norms and break power structures. Governments around the world are actively trying to crush the rights of citizens to speak their minds. In the internet we have the freedom to say what we wish, but we must be careful.

South Korea has been placed “under surveillance” by Reporters Without Borders, because,

draconian laws are creating too many specific restrictions on Web users by challenging their anonymity and promoting selfcensorship.

What is worrying, still, is that Mr. La Rue complained a few days ago of being followed during his stay in Korea. He told the Foreign Ministry that he was being filmed by men in a car that is supposedly registered to the National Intelligence Service (NIS).

Lee Myung-bak’s administration has maintained an uncooperative stance towards the UN investigator, and the NIS has refused to meet with him. According to the Hankyoreh, “La Rue delivered the roundabout criticism that human rights cannot be guaranteed in a country if the government has no will to achieve it.”

Freedom of expression in Korea is an issue that has been constantly brought to light in recent times. The government’s laws regarding internet usage are abhorrent. I applauded Google’s decision to skirt around the real name verification law in 2009. Laws like these are an embarrassment.

Take a look at the case of “Minerva.” Korea’s reputation around the world took a beating as it trampled over a man’s human rights and set a horrible precedent for free speech. Korea joined Iran and China as nations openly willing to arrest bloggers for expressing opinions.

At Christmas 2009, the Korea Times published a satirical piece by Michael Breen. This recently drew the ire of Samsung, who tried to sue Breen for defamation. Thanks to international news coverage, Samsung dropped their case. However, this won’t be the last time you see satire draw legal action. Korean society is too mired in “saving face” and “maintaining honour” to allow such things. Unless everyone who decides to publish a piece of satire has the international media behind them, you can bet that Samsung and co will continue to crush free speech.

Korean libel laws are ludicrously backward. They stem from an outdated system of values and stand only to protect the wealthy and the powerful. Truth is no defense against libel in South Korea. You simply aren’t meant to say something that could damage the image of another person – even if what you say is true.

I discovered last year that my blog had drawn the attention of a former employer. He repeatedly threatened to sue me for libel after I wrote a few blog posts about working for his school. I consulted a lawyer and was given an alarming run-down on the Korean legal system – even though I was telling the absolute truth, and could provide evidence to support my claims, I would still be sued for defamation.

These are not laws that have any place in a developed country.

Even outside the law, freedom of expression is tough in Korea. With Samsung, LG and a handful of other giant corporations owning everything in sight, you really must be careful what you say. These companies and their subsidiaries are worth a staggering amount of advertising revenue. Piss them off at your peril. It’s hard to imagine a newspaper or magazine in South Korea being able to stay afloat without advertisement from a company affiliated with one of the big corporations.

And the manifestation of the challenge to free speech that is on many a foreigner’s mind these days – and has certainly been on my mind for a few weeks – is that of the irate Korean netizen. Let’s face it – Korea has never welcomed outside criticism. Foreigners have – even from the earliest encounters – had to hold their tongues when talking about Korea. Unless you want to say, “Why yes, kimchi is number one,” you really must be careful. As vocal as Koreans can be abroad, they absolutely abhor foreign criticism of their own country.

The K-blogosphere provides a semi-anonymous spectrum for discussion. Foreigners can put across their opinions supposedly without fear of reprisals, and Koreans are free to read and comment back. If the comments become too ridiculous – and we’ve all seen many of these badly-written rants – the blogger can simply reject the comment and continue to write.

Almost since my first post, I’ve been assaulted by threats. I used to have a MySpace page that was bombed out of existence after it was spread around Naver and Daum. I’ve been a little more careful since then, but I’ve been taking one or two death threats per month for more than a year. Most of these are silly and I ignore them.

But recently, as most of you will be aware, the problem has escalated. First to go was Lousy Korea, whose controversial blog was assaulted by angry Koreans and foreigners. She took a number of death threats before the antagonists turned on the children of other foreigners. After that she removed her blog and left the country.

Another blogger – whom I’m not sure I should name – was targeted in a similar fashion. He’s now on his way out of Korea.

I made the (drunken) mistake of posting a death threat on my own blog. It came from an anonymous commenter and I should have ignored it. But I didn’t, and a few stupid posts followed. I thought that engaging this person might help. I was wrong.

I have been presented with my own name, my address, and vivid descriptions of my forthcoming death. My name was recently spread around Naver with details about my education history. I’ve received pictures and videos of decapitations, and been told that’s what I can expect. After I posted a harmless story about my new motorcycle I received an image of a horrendous motorcycle accident, and was warned that someone knew my license plates and would endeavour to run me down.

Mr. Wonderful has been taking threats, too. He says it’s not the first time, and I’m sure that he’s telling the truth. His blog takes more hits than mine, and some of his readers seem like real nut-jobs.

It seems that free speech in the K-blogosphere simply comes with a greater set of risks this year. Hopefully, these attacks are the actions of pissed off nobodies without the balls to follow through… but who knows? Who’s to say one of us won’t be stabbed outside our apartment one night?

Korea has come along in leaps and bounds over the past fifty or so years. Not long ago this country had a dictatorship. Hell, a few miles North of Seoul there’s a hermit state where people are regularly sentenced to hard labour, or tortured to death. We’re lucky that we can say what we can. You simply cannot have a free society without the right to criticize, or to raise controversial points. We need this discussion. We need to be allowed to speak without fear of being killed or deported. We need to have the right to speak openly, and we need to have the right to speak anonymously. Dangerous precedents are being set this year in South Korea, and without intervention – without some sort of change – this country will become a little more like its buddy up north.

*For La Rue’s full report, please visit Roboseyo.

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About Ty

Living in Korea and traveling the world.
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