Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Am I Allowed to say I'm Disappointed with Frank La Rue's Discussion of Freedom of Expression?

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:

(image source)

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.

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.


Korean Rum Diary said...

I think it's important to note (as you, me and Mr. La Rue all have done) that Korea has come a long way in a short time. Nobody's trying to take that away from them. But vigilance is vital. Even in long-standing democracies, the people need to be ready to fight for their freedoms because there are always those willing to take them away.

What disappoints me greatly is the current administration's unwillingness to cooperate with La Rue. It's a fucking disgrace, really. Korea has a very privileged position right now in that it has come so far so fast, and it is respected as such. But when they crush free speech and refuse to engage their critics at the UN... well, that's just childish.

I don't want to draw ridiculous parallels, but there are certain neighbors to the north and east that are known for their horrendous suppression of free speech. South Korea had better be careful that it doesn't slide any further in that direction.

Jin said...

I think you're missing a key point which is that the 2MB administration has enacted a number of policies which have inhibited free speech and expression. If you recall, under Presidents Kim Daejung and Noh Muhyun, many of the censorships laws were loosened (I remember Lies and Eyes Wide Shut were the first sexually explicit films which were allowed to play in Korea without any censorship or editing).

Chris in South Korea said...

Jin - one minor change to help the film industry doesn't change the fact that people are less free to say what they want.

The time that the country has been a democracy isn't particularly important - America has called itself a democracy since 1776 - guess what happened after 9/11? England has had their share of stories proving their 'Nanny State' nickname.

The blogger website can't be stopped - but the blogger themselves can be traced. That chilling fact will keep most Koreans from saying / doing anything too radical online. However, there are elements of Korea that remain offline - large crowds may 'gather' online, but how many high-level meetings of revolutionaries happen there? Nyet - those happen in a quiet restaurant in the middle of who-knows-where.

I'm glad La Rue came to visit - but the UN has no more chance to enforce / encourage anti-censorship rules than I do at becoming president.

Jin said...

Chris, my point was not about the movie industry but the general attitude about free speech and expression that was encouraged under the two previous administrations. Any discussion of Korea's free speech laws today must consider what impact the current administration has had. SInce the election of 2MB, we've seen a number of alarming instances in which the expression of dissenting political views has been stymied or discouraged. Therefore, any larger discussion of free speech in Korea must take into account that things are less rosy today than they were a decade ago.

Roboseyo said...

I agree with Jin in this case: I also think free speech has taken a step backwards under the current administration. We have public officers and gu offices suing commentators or critics for defamation, we have bloggers arrested for being right about their predictions, and we have bureaucratic hurdles popping up to limit public gatherings like whack-a-mole. The sooner the Prez and his buddies figure out that you can't stop information any more, the better, and if you close a door, people crawl in the window, pissed off.

That Korea's libel laws are goofy might be a result of very recent democratization; that public assembly is being suppressed and public officials are suing people for defamation and not having their cases thrown out, makes me nervous.

Jin said...

Also, if you know anything about the history of free speech in Korea, the release of Lies was no "minor change" but opened the door for other forms of expression. To call it a minor incident is like calling Chun Tae-il's death a historical footnote.

Tyson said...

@ Chris America is a Republic not a democracy. The Founding Fathers thought a democracy would be dangerous. No harm done but I thought I would do a minor correction.

As for the topic, I think as Korea continues to expand its technology base and start to allow products such as Apple and phones using the Android OS they will have more and more options to explore the internet without logging into their identity. This will give them more freedoms to explore and comment on current events and ideologies.

A great point was made that the laws must be updated and put more in line with other countries. This can only be done through outside pressure and Korea's willingness to adapt and (for lack of a better word) conform to western norms.

kushibo said...

Roboseyo updated:
Update: speaking of Mad Netizens, Brian D. has this one about Korea's latest internet pariah.

I'm surprised, given how recent the UN Rapporteur's visit was, how few made the connection between his visit and the current case you just mentioned.

I would like to pose the same question I posed at Brian's: Does a guarantee of free speech necessarily come with a guarantee of anonymous speech?

Tyson wrote:
Chris America is a Republic not a democracy. The Founding Fathers thought a democracy would be dangerous. No harm done but I thought I would do a minor correction.

I think you are assuming "democracy" to mean direct democracy in this case. A republic run by directly elected officials, I believe, can be called a representative democracy. I'm channeling 12th grade "Civics" here, not some recent college-level poli-sci studies, so feel free to correct me.

Roboseyo said...

Good question, Kushibo. I've actually thought about that before, given the real name system in effect here: Honestly, I'd be OK with the real name system if, and only if, I saw everyone in those places of authority committed to fiercely protecting people's freedom to say what they want.

Given cases like minerva, and some of the other stories reported about getting police calls for posting on government-critical websites, etc., on comment boards, I don't trust this government to protect my freedom of speech, while still requiring my real name.

That's why I predict people starting to find work-arounds to the real-name system in the near future, as international websites become more familiar to Kroean users. If I had those kinds of controversial views to share, I'd CERTAINLY post them on blogger or wordpress, rather than Naver or Daum.