Friday, July 4, 2008

South-Korea's beef with the internet

For the last 58 days, every day in South-Korea has been marked by "candlelight vigils". While these vigils were started by highschool and middleschool students to oppose the import of US beef, they have grown to inlcude every demographic in the country and have become a public platform that shouts out not just against American beef, but against many policies presented by Lee Myung Bak and his administration in the Korean Blue House. Privatisation of medical services, Grand Korean Waterway, His authoritarian crackdowns on free speech and his attempts to control the press, these are but several of the issues that lead thousands and thousand every night to demand his resignation on the streets of Seoul. On June 10th, the day of the Korean people ousted the military dictatorships in 1987, almost half a million people gathered in Seoul alone.

While many of his actions worry me, his stand on the internet and press is one that most concerns me. Especially his stand on the internet is problematic, and reflects in many ways the infamous attitudes of the People's Republic of China. Restrictions of free speech were common in Korea before 1988, during military rule, and the press was in firm control of the government. Only twenty years into democracy Lee Myung Bak seems to slowly move back to just that. He appointed several of this close aides, campaign leaders and close political allies in key positions in several broadcasting agencies such as YTN and Arirang TV. KBS is currently under pressure of the governement because it tended to report about the candlelight protests, something which led to protests by citizens in front of their offices. Yet in the age of internet the influence of the press is limited: blogs, internetboards, independent newswebsites, all of those wield ever stronger opinions, something that didn't go unnoticed by the current administration.

Spam mail from anonymous users and the spread of false and inaccurate information is threatening reason and trust on the internet. The internet needs to be a place of trust. The strength of the internet can be poison instead of medicine if people cannot have faith in it.[1] Those are the words of Lee Myung Bak on Jun 17th. The false and inaccurate information relate to the candlelight protests held every night by citizens, at the start of those protests the Supreme Prosecutor General’s Office already announced that it would look into possibilities of prosecuting those "spreading false rumors about US beef".[2] Yet what would the effects be if such procecution is actually carried out? When claiming the importance of such "Freedom of Trust", "Freedom of Speech" has to clear the way in the mindset of the current South-Korean administration.

While not related directly to the internet, the case of MBC "PD Notebook" shows similar attitudes. "PD Notebook" is news program on the MBC that focused on BSE in the US on April 29th. Currently it's under investigations for "spreading false rumors" about US Beef.[3] Yet whether these are true or false, investigation by a prosecution office shows that the investigation itself is a political one. Because if in the end press, internet users and others can be prosecuted for "false rumors" the current three conservative newspapers: JongAng Ilbo, DongA Ilbo and Chosun Ilbo, as well as the governement itself, should be investigated for spreading rumors that might be potentially false. Such arguments are merely a tool to suppress specific news and opinions, because they provide an excuse for investigation... The simple fact that the Lee Myung-Bak's governement is using it says more than anything he has ever said during this entire crisis.


[1]. "Internet free speech to be restricted: Cheong Wa Dae takes steps to decrease negative public online opinion" The Hangyoreh, June 18 2008.

[2]. "Law enforcement officials pledge to prosecute people for ‘mad cow horror stories’: Gov’t appears threatened by spread of information via the Internet and increased number of candlelight protests" The Hangyoreh, May 8 2008.

[3]. "Investigation into MBC program raises questions about press freedoms: Media insiders say MBC report should be handled within the media community, not by the prosecution" The Hangyoreh, June 30 2008.