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Why a presidential scandal is boosting free speech in South Korea

shift in thought

The level of protest and criticism of President Park is a major shift for a country that the UN Human Rights Committee warned last year was using criminal defamation laws to prosecute critics.

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    Protesters release paper lanterns into the air during a rally calling for South Korean President Park Geun-hye to step down in Chuncheon, South Korea, Saturday, Dec. 3.
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Ko Jae-hyung, a 26-year-old Web cartoonist, has joined a new wave of young political activists in South Korea. He attends every rally protesting embattled President Park Geun-hye’s tenure, and hands out stickers of cartoons that call for her to step down.

“Impeachment is really nice in winter,” reads one, an allusion to a famous line in a short story by the 20th-century novelist Kim You-jeong.

Although Mr. Ko’s earlier cartoons often touched on social issues, they usually avoided explicit references to politics – a result of Ms. Park’s heavy-handed approach to critics and political opponents since she took office in 2013.

But in the midst of the country’s biggest political scandal in decades, the floodgates of public criticism have blown open. Government prosecutors have accused Park of helping Choi Soon-sil, a close confidante, extort millions of dollars from major companies and interfere in state affairs. Park’s approval rating has plummeted to 4 percent, leading to what Madeline Earp, an Asia research analyst for Freedom House, describes as “an explosion of expression on all platforms.”

Since the scandal broke in late October, millions of protesters have turned up for rallies in downtown Seoul every weekend to call for Park's ouster. Online, countless social media users have demanded her resignation in a torrent of pent-up anger directed at a president who, in the eyes of many, is no longer qualified to lead the nation.

It’s an enormous shift in a country that the UN Human Rights Committee warned last year was making “increasing use of criminal defamation laws to prosecute persons who criticize government action.” And it may leave a permanent mark on a younger generation that appears unwilling to go back to the old standard.

“This is unprecedented,” says Park Kyung-sin, a freedom of speech advocate and law professor at Korea University in Seoul. “I don't think people feel at all chilled or suppressed or reluctant to speak out for fear of retaliation.”

Roots of the chill

The roots of the chill under Park largely lie in the sinking of the Sewol ferry off the southwest coast of South Korea on April 16, 2014, a disaster that deeply rattled the country. A total of 304 people, most of them students from a single high school, died in the disaster. To make matters worse, investigators soon revealed that official incompetence and corruption were at least partially to blame.

In the ensuing months, public criticism of the response to the sinking soared. Rumors abounded about where Park was in the immediate aftermath; a particularly salacious one claimed she was having a romantic encounter with a former aide.

Then, on Sept. 16, Park told her cabinet ministers she had had enough.

“Profanity towards the president has gone too far,” she said, according to a transcript of the meeting. “Insulting the president is equal to insulting the nation.”

Public prosecutors acted swiftly. Two days after the meeting, they set up a special investigation unit for enhanced monitoring of “online slanders and rumors,” according to the 2016 “Freedom on the Net” report published by Freedom House, a Washington-based democracy advocacy organization. At least four people were later sentenced to up to 18 months in prison for online defamation.

But the strange twists and turns of the scandal – and its sheer absurdity at times – has changed the tone.

“This scandal has opened a window for people to share their anger,” says Lee Won-jae, a prominent economist and political commentator. “Many of the young people I’ve met, I never imagined seeing them protest.”

Ko, the cartoonist, says he feels more emboldened in expressing his opinion now.

“At the protests I can feel that all these people are with me,” he says at a trendy coffee shop in downtown Seoul where he once worked as a barista. “Having that mutual support really gives me courage.”

In some ways, Ko is also legally safer protesting in the streets than he on the internet. Violators of South Korea’s strict defamation laws face up to seven years in prison for comments made online, compared with five years for those made offline.

Ko Jae-hyung with his cartoons in Gwanghwamun Square, where millions of protesters have gathered six weekends in a row. Michael Holtz/The Christian Science Monitor

No turning back?

Regardless of where or how people criticize Park, observers say prosecutors once loyal to her are unlikely to come to her defense. Her seemingly imminent demise makes her a political liability as calls for her ouster continue to grow.

On Tuesday, leaders of Park’s party said she has offered to step down in April, a proposal that is unlikely to prevent an impeachment vote on Friday. Opposition lawmakers formally launched the impeachment process last week. They appear determined to see it through amid reports that they have the 200 votes necessary to pass the bill.

It remains to be seen how the current surge of free speech will transform in the aftermath of the scandal. Prof. Park, who’s of no relation to the president, says one of the major questions is what will happen to the laws that allows government officials to silence their critics in the first place.

“Yes, now people are speaking out,” he says. ““But only because the tide has turned. It can easily turn back.”

South Korea’s Constitution guarantees freedom of expression. Yet unlike most developed countries, its defamation laws allow for criminal prosecutions, if a public interest cannot be demonstrated, for statements proved to be true. Attempts to amend the laws have so far been unsuccessful.

Even if the law remains unchanged, Park Ji-young, a 27-year-old children’s book editor who’s also not related to the president, says the historic protests have left a permanent mark on South Korea’s youth. She recalls being overwhelmed by the outpouring of anger and grief two weekends ago, when she battled snow and freezing temperatures to attend her first demonstration.

“My generation won't go back to the way it was,” she says. “They will keep looking at what the politicians are doing and speaking out if they think something is wrong."

 
 
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