After the April 16, 2014 Sewol ferry tragedy, the public criticized President Park Geun-Hye for her handling of the emergency situation. People were angry because they believed the government disseminated false information about the tragedy – but, more than that, they were angry at what appeared to be a slow response from the Korean Coast Guard resulting in 304 deaths, most of whom were high school students (Lee & Choe, 2014).
In the wake of the tragedy, many South Korean newspapers wrote stories about the event, some airing rumors about what had happened. In response to the rumors and the potential spread of fake news, President Park announced on October 6, 2014 that any messages containing insults directed at her would be investigated. This included private messages sent through KakaoTalk, a popular messenger app in Korea. President Park stated that if any “inappropriate” content was found, the writer would face punishment (Brandom, 2014).
South Korea is officially a “fully functioning modern democracy,” which means Korean citizens are guaranteed the freedom of speech and individual rights (Central Intelligence Agency, 2017). However, the Sewol tragedy and the debate around public speech related to it illustrates the level of censorship the South Korean government practices in spite of being a democracy.
South Korea and Internet Censorship
South Korea is a highly wired country with one of world’s fastest Internet speeds. Wi-Fi is distributed throughout most major cities and social media is easy to access. About 77.8% of all Korean citizens identify themselves as Internet users and it consistently has one of the world’s highest Internet penetration rates at 90% (FreedomHouse, 2016). However, South Korea is also on the list of “countries under surveillance” for Internet censorship, which means that while citizens do have freedom of speech, they do not necessarily have well developed privacy rights (Chelsea, 2015).
Freedom of the press is generally respected and most public information is open to the public through the Act on Disclosure of Information by Public Agencies, which protects the right of public to access public information unless they are protected for reasons of national security. (FreedomHouse, 2016) Yet, the South Korea government engages in active Internet censorship based on three laws: the Nation Security Law, the Basic Press Act, and Article 21.
The National Security Law was established in 1948 in order to regulate the press and the media after WWII. The law was established to secure the war-torn peninsula and to prevent anything that endangered the, at that time fragile, government. As part of it, government controlled the media and the law was used to ensure governmental power (Human Rights Watch, 2015).
The Basic Press Act was published in 1980. This Act tightened censorship laws by giving specific guidelines for how information should be reported and edited before presenting to the public (Youm, 1990).
Finally, Article 21 articulates the limitations on freedom of speech. The Article 21 states:
“Neither speech nor the press shall violate the honor of rights of other persons nor undermine public morals or social ethics. Should speech or the press violate the honor or rights of other persons, claims may be made for the damage resulting there from.” (Statutes of the Republic of Korea)
When former President Park announced that public critics would be targeted, she was specifically drawing on Article 21. According to the Article 21, if a person says something that dishonors the government or the president, there can be consequences, even though citizens are guaranteed freedom of speech.
Regulation Process and Organizations
Overall, South Korean Internet censorship is operated through two committees: the Korean Communications Committee (KCC) and the Korean Communication Standards Committee (KCSC). KCC was first established in 2008 and is responsible for regulating all media. The KCSC is a committee inside the KCC that only regulates the Internet.
The KCC looks into any content that needs to be monitored, including nudity, materials harmful to minors, cyber defamation, praise of North Korea, and anti-military content. When such content is found, KCSC requests that content to taken down – requests that are rarely denied.
In addition to these two committees, there is also the Korean Internet Self-Governance Organization (KISO), a committee not regulated by government but that works close with the KCC and KCSC. This organization consists of the major Korea Internet platforms such as Naver, DaumKakao, SK Communications, and KT (Chelsea, 2015). As part of their cooperation with the government, most use a method of so-called “Real Name Verification.” Real name verification requires people to provide personal information before putting information online.
The South Korean government states that the South Korean people have the freedom to criticize government policies or political leaders if the Internet critiques do not threat the national security or develop into cyber defamation (Plaza, 2015). However, this means that freedom of speech is not fully protected – as several cases illustrate. For example, when a Daum Agora user predicted online that there would be an economic downturn in South Korea in 2009, he was jailed for violating the Telecommunications Business Act. South Korean Twitter users have also been arrested for tweeting about North Korea. In another case, Internet protesters were punished for protesting beef importation from the United States in 2008.
Not only that, major apps such as KakaoTalk are under government pressure for user data. KakaoTalk stated that it, “received 2,131 requests for users’ information from the government with search warrants as well as 61 court-approved requests seeking to wiretap” (Lee, 2014). In 2015, the KCSC made 148,751 requests of South Korean media providers to censor content – an increase of 11.9 percent from 2014 and more than triple the amount requested in 2011 (FreedomHouse, 2016). Their requests covered a range of content from pornography to anything that was considered to threaten national security, including defamation of the South Korean or U.S. governments.
Some measure of government censorship over the Internet is practiced in every country. However, in South Korea there is a contradiction between the democratic values of the country and the level of government censorship. Transparency and freedom of speech are essential factors for democracy.
Youm, Kyu Ho & Salwen, Michael B. (March, 1990). A Free Press in South Korea. In A Free Press in South Korea: Temporary Phenomenon or Permanent Fixture? (pp.312-325). University California Press.