Limited Freedom of Speech: South Korea’s Slow Path to Democracy

by Nari Shim

Imagine a country where you are likely to be laid off from your public-sector job if you criticize the current president. If you try to lampoon a national event supported by the administration, you will likely face a prosecutor’s investigation. If you are a legislator who has ever criticized a presidential candidate for his alleged involvement in a criminal scandal, you are likely to be imprisoned for defamation once that candidate takes office. Believe it or not, this is South Korea, a nation widely perceived to be a thriving democracy.

But how do we reconcile this image with that of a country which held free and fair presidential elections on December 19, 2012? South Korea is a country full of contradictions: through democratic elections, Park Geun-hye, the daughter of South Korea’s longest ruling dictator, was voted into office. Whether she will follow in her father’s footsteps of political repression remains to be seen, but journalists have already expressed anxiety over Ms. Park’s silence on the recent retrenchment of freedom of speech in South Korea.

Democracy or not, Reporters Without Borders designated South Korea a country “under surveillance” earlier this year in its annual “Enemies of the Internet” report, placing it in the company of Russia, Egypt, and other repressive regimes. South Korea’s press freedom ranking, according to Freedom House in 2011 and 2012, declined from “free” to “partially free” for the first time in 21 years.

The country’s slip in the freedom of press rankings reflects a widespread, government-led crackdown on journalists, bloggers, and television networks that began when Mr. Lee Myung-bak became president in 2008. Critics of the president postulate that Mr. Lee’s conservative streak is driving the crackdown. Others attribute his actions to the “bulldozer” management style he adopted while CEO of Hyundai Construction & Engineering, now the sister company of Hyundai Motors. Still others argue the massive protest in early 2008 against the government’s decision to resume imports of U.S. beef that had been halted due the outbreak of mad cow disease provoked Seoul’s policy of restricting the press.

Whatever the motivation, the crackdown has been remarkably effective at stifling criticism, whether written or spoken. Many reference the chilling example of “Minerva,” the Korean financial blogger that predicted the collapse of Lehman Brothers five days before it actually happened and the sharp decline of the won against the dollar. The South Korean government, humiliated and angered, responded by detaining and charging the blogger with harming the public by spreading false rumors. Prosecutors cited the nation’s telecommunications law, which was later ruled unconstitutional, but not before “Minerva” suffered devastating physical losses.

Similar tales abound. A judge who wrote on his personal Twitter account that the president was out to punish Internet users who challenged his authority was fired in what was seen as a retaliatory move. A university instructor who vandalized a G-20 promotional poster, satirically mocking the President in advance of the 2010 Seoul summit, was indicted and fined by government authorities. Former lawmaker Jeong Bong-ju continues to languish in prison for violating the defamation law by criticizing the current president during his candidacy for alleged involvement in a stock market scandal.

Fear of retribution has led many South Korean journalists to practice self-censorship over the last five years and keep their criticisms of the government to themselves. Evidence suggests, however, that some South Koreans are fighting back. Recently, unionized journalists from the state-owned television network Korea Broadcasting System have vowed to hold up production in protest of the government’s clampdown. Earlier this year, three major television networks, along with several news outlets, went on strike simultaneously, an unprecedented event in Korean history. The strike was held in protest of the government’s alleged management interference in news coverage and role in appointing close aides to top CEO positions in major television networks.

Yet, the government has remained on the whole unapologetic for its actions. After a series of on-again-off-again protests over the past couple years, the government punished 447 journalists, sixteen of which were laid off. Such actions are reminiscent of the 1980s, when South Korea’s dictatorship sacked 993 journalists during his reign.

This month marks a crucial moment for the future of freedom of speech in South Korea as citizens exercised their hard-won democratic rights by voting at the polls on December 19. Weighing the choice between Moon Jae-in, the human rights lawyer cum politician from the Democratic United Party, and Park Geun-hye, the nearly lifetime politician from the currently ruling conservative Saenuri Party, South Koreans elected Ms. Park to serve as the nation’s first female president. If South Koreans are to believe in the values of democracy, they must trust in the results of their democratic election. But whether Ms. Park’s presidency will be marked by progress toward complete freedom of speech or the ossification of repression remains to be seen.

About the Author

Nari Shim is a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy candidate at The Fletcher School, focusing on Economic Development and International Information & Communication. Previously, she worked for the South Korea-based news network CBS (Christian Broadcasting System), where she covered a diverse portfolio ranging from economics to politics.

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