In South Korea — A government critic who called the president a curse word on his Twitter account found it blocked. An activist whose Twitter posting likened officials to pirates for approving a controversial naval base was accused by the navy of criminal defamation. And a judge who wrote that the president (“His Highness”) was out to “screw” Internet users who challenged his authority was fired in what was widely seen as retaliation.
The avid policing of social media in these cases took place in South Korea, a thriving democracy and one of the world’s most wired societies.
The seeming disconnect is at least partly rooted in South Korea’s struggle to manage the contradictions in eagerly embracing the Web as one way to catch up with the world’s top economies, while clinging to a patriarchal and somewhat puritanical past. In a nation so threatened by Lady Gaga that it barred fans under age 18 from attending a concert, the thought of unlimited opportunities for Internet users to swear in “public,” view illegal pornography and challenge authority has proved profoundly unsettling.
Critics of President Lee Myung-bak’s government agree that its conservative streak is a driver behind the Internet crackdown. But they argue that prohibitions on profanity and other online activities have also become a convenient excuse to silence critics. It is not the first time that the government has been accused of being overzealous; two former presidential aides and other officials are on trial on charges of conducting illegal surveillance of citizens.
The whittling away of hard-won freedoms is especially troubling, activists say, because the social media have become the newest outlets for rebellion, replacing the street battles of the 1980s that forced the end of decades of dictatorship.
The United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of expression was alarmed enough last year to lecture officials on the necessity for public scrutiny in a democracy.
And this year, Reporters Without Borders listed South Korea as a country “under surveillance” in a report titled “Enemies of the Internet,” putting it in the company of Russia, Egypt and other nations known for their intolerance of dissent.
The group said South Korea had intensified its longstanding campaign on material that appears to support North Korea. But the report said “censorship is also focused on political opinions expressed online — a critical topic in this election year.”
In a statement defending its stance, the government said it acted because “character assassinations and suicides caused by excessive insults, the spreading of false rumors and defamation have all become social issues.”
But the Rev. Choi Byoung-sung, a critic of the government’s environmental policy, argues that free speech is being undermined.
It thus appears that Democracy alone is not a safeguard against the erosion of free speech and we must be ever vigilant that it can happen here.
Thanks to CHOE SANG-HUN and the New York Times, and
Thanks for “listening”
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