Last Updated: Friday, 21 November 2014, 13:47 GMT

Countries under surveillance 2010 - South Korea

Publisher Reporters Without Borders
Publication Date 18 March 2010
Cite as Reporters Without Borders, Countries under surveillance 2010 - South Korea, 18 March 2010, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4c21f6690.html [accessed 22 November 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Close to 90% of South Korean households have Web access via the world's best network infrastructure. However, concerned about maintaining order in a period of social unrest, the government has been attempting to strengthen censorship by resorting to excessive means and a liberticidal legislative arsenal that is inducing netizens to practice self-censorship – all that in the name of the fight against dissemination of "false information."

The new media are having a considerable impact on South Korean society, culture, and policies. Some highly independent bloggers are being read daily by hundreds of thousands of people, and discussion forums are buzzing with activity. The e-zine www.ohmynews.com publishes articles written by ordinary netizens. It is known to have influenced the outcome of elections and has been under scrutiny by the conservative government, which is trying to muffle its criticisms.

A Net takeover in reaction to social unrest and criticism of the authorities

In June 2008, President Lee Myung-bak clearly expressed his distrust of the Web: "The Internet should be a space of trust. Otherwise, the force of the Internet could turn out to be venomous rather than beneficial." The government was attempting to cope at the time with a wave of demonstrations over the scandal of the beef imported from the United States – demonstrations provoked, according to the authorities, by Internet users via the well-known Agora discussion forum, which has become the government's pet peeve.

The authorities are using the criminalization of defamation against their critics and do not hesitate to make examples of them. Since June 2008, a dozen Web surfers have been briefly arrested and interrogated for having posted online comments critical of the government within the context of these demonstrations.

The widely popular blogger Minerva has learned, at his expense, that the government values protecting the financial markets more highly than defending freedom of expression. In 2007, Minerva was arrested for having undermined the foreign exchange markets," as well as the nation's credibility," because of articles he had posted on the discussion forum of Daum – one of the country's biggest Web portals. The government objected to his criticisms of its economic policies and for announcing the fall of the won. Accused of "disseminating false information," the man nicknamed "President of the Economy" since his prediction that Lehman Brothers would collapse, could have faced up to five years' imprisonment and a fine of KRW 50 million fine (USD 42,500). He was acquitted in April 2009, but the public prosecutor lodged an appeal. A case worth following up.

Selective filtering

South Korea is blocking about forty Internet websites that extol the Pyongyang regime, as well as some online betting sites and sites that promote suicide. As provided under the National Security Law, any individual who publicly supports North Korea can be charged with "anti-statist activity" and can face up to seven years behind bars. This law applies to traditional media as well as online media.

Website blocking is carried out by access providers acting under the order of an administrative authority, the Korea Communications Commission, which is also in charge of Web surveillance.

Several worrying laws

Censors have several legal options at their disposal to ensure Internet control. Article 47 of the Telecommunications Code states that it is illegal "to disseminate false news intended to damage the public interest." The penalty for any violation can mean up to five years in prison.

The electoral law was amended in 2004 to prohibit dissemination, via the Internet, of defamatory statements about politicians running for office during an electoral campaign. The country's penal code, notably the provisions against insult and defamation – even for comments that turn to be true – is also used against Web surfers (Article 307).

Article 44-7 of the Act on the Promotion of Information and Communications Network Utilization and Information Protection (the Network Act) prohibits the exchange of electronic information that compromises national security or is considered to be defamatory, even if such content is true.

Compromised anonymity

Article 44-5 of this same Act requires that Internet users register under their real names and provide their national ID card number when visiting portals with over 100,000 members. On the other hand, only the users' pseudonyms appear online. YouTube has refused to apply this measure. Consequently, since April 2008, YouTube users who identify themselves as based in Korea cannot upload or download their videos on the website.

Since February 2009, one of the country's main portals, Nate, has been requiring surfers to display their real name in order to leave comments online

Despite the government's constant pressure, South Korean netizens are very active and willing to mobilize online via forums and discussion sites. By persisting in following this repressive policy, the government is taking the risk of alienating part of the population, as well as potential investors. Its drastic rules with regard to Web user registration and surveillance are considered by such international websites as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter as a deterrent with regard to their entry into the South Korean market.

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