Frank La Rue, a UN Special Rapporteur who just spent 12 days in Korea investigating human rights situations in Korea, with special focus on freedom expression, has given a report about South Korea's progress in supporting freedom of expression. The summary of his report is linked above, and here. The full statement can be found as a PDF here.
A few of the most salient points:
1. even when they eventually get acquitted, the fact bloggers have gotten arrested for expressing their opinions (see Minerva), throws cold water on public discussion of issues.
2. The Real Name Identification system sucks
3. The Korea Communications Standards Commission has an opaque process for deciding which websites get blocked, which basically means no accountability.
4. It's ridiculous that you can go to jail just for spreading false information.
5. It's also ridiculous that defamation is in the criminal code, rather than just being a civil offense.
6. Freedom of assembly is being stifled... though the laws in the books say it's protected, having to get approval in advance for a demonstration, and the government's ability to block a demonstration for fear that it might block traffic, amounts to a de facto curtailing of that freedom.
7. Teachers and government officials should be free to express political opinions... even if they disagree with the police.
8. It's also ridiculous that public officials can sue for defamation (and even press criminal charges) when they're in public positions, and it's natural for their actions to come under scrutiny because of the position they've taken.
9. The ban on commenting about upcoming public officials elections is also uncool, especially when the law is interpreted in a way that makes people feel like they can't discuss key issues.
OK, fair enough.
Like the article mentions, I'm more interested in comparing those situations to how things were in those regards, in Korea, 15 years ago, than in comparing Korea with other countries that have been free democracies for longer. After all, 1987/1993 is not really that long ago, and most people will tell you that one of those two years was the one when Koreandemocracy really, REALLY began.
Here's the thing that really disappointed me:
"Mr. La Rue met with 16 State institutions; however, he was deeply disappointed that he could not meet with the President, the Prime Minister, nor a single Minister of Government. “Despite my requests, I was unable to meet with the Prosecutor-General nor members of the National Intelligence Service, despite the fact that I came to the country on an official invitation,” added the expert."
the unhelpful attitude of high-level government officials concerns me more than any of the particulars of Korea's freedom of expression situation. Getting stone-walled - nothing more than the lip-service of inviting the guy in the first place - seems to me to give an indication of how important the current government considers freedom of expression. That's disappointing. And concerning. But mostly disappointing. And also very, very 1973.
Shit, am I allowed to say that? Why do I need to ask myself that question before I post?
My two bits on the elections stuff: between the real name identification system, and the election commentary ban, here's what I think: (image from here)
1. Now that Youtube won the war with Korea, and Koreans are allowed to upload to Youtube without giving their ID number, that opens the door for other google services to hold to the same standard.
2. Now that blogger platforms can come in all Korean settings, as well, and...
3. Now that mobile devices are finally forcing Korea to update its internet standards and come in step with international norms, and people are going to start using iPhones to check blogs, and have trouble with accessing Korean webpages on those devices...
I predict that a lot of Koreans will move to platforms like blogger, where their anonymity is a little safer, and that in either these or the next elections, we'll see a huge increase in Korean presence on blogger and other non-Korean blog platforms, where people can talk a little more freely about issues like this.
Fact is, Korea can't block google, or they lump themselves with China as "enemies of the internet" - there'd be an outcry.
And eventually, the conservatives in power will finally, FINALLY realize, that it's impossible to control information in today's world... unless you want to be like China. And maybe even then.
Last thing, re: freedom of speech: (picture is from here)
Rue mentions that a culture of tolerance regarding criticism should be promoted. I agree. I have no idea whether La Rue paid any attention to netizen bullying, or only police bullying of people practicing free expression, but I do know that there's a group thatseems to have a "hit list" of what they call "Anti-Korea Blogs" they're trying to take down. The irony is that the behavior of Korea Sentry is exactly the kind of narrow-minded, myopic, "truth is secondary to whether I agree with it" attitude that many of the anti-Korea blogs discuss. By bullying and hounding the people who say things they don't like, Korea Sentry at least partially proves them right. These clowns too, would do well to realize that you can't stop information. Even if you intimidate a blogger (and create/confirm a bad impression of Korea while you're at it - who's stirring up hate for Korea and Koreans when your behavior is so obviously hateful?) you just stir up more negative talk about Korea and Korean netizens, and the blog will turn up again on google cache soon enough anyway.
So far, I haven't had much trouble with the "Why do you hate Korea" crowd myself... for obvious reasons.
Knock on wood.
On the other hand, from KRD:
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.Update: speaking of Mad Netizens, Brian D. has this one about Korea's latest internet pariah.