Parodies test boundaries of free speech

July 27,2004
The form of protest that’s in vogue these days doesn’t require standing outside for hours, chanting slogans and clashing with police. All you need is a digital camera, some knowledge about computers and an Internet connection. For members of the first generation to grow up with the Internet, parodies are the preferred way to make a statement.
“Since the Internet era arrived in Korea in the late 1990s, along with the growing popularity of digital devices after the year 2000, parody images are now a way for youth to express their ideas in every aspect,” says Park Ju-don, a staff member at dcinside.com, a site that allows people to post digital images.
Playing with pictures is nothing new. Young people paste their friends’ images on popular movies, such as “Friends,” for fun, and some parents even have their babies’ photos attached to “Lord of the Rings” movie posters. Web sites specializing in such images have been around for years.
But what’s different is the tone and frequency of parodies in political attacks. During an anti-war street rally last year, one student activist confronting riot police held up a mock movie poster that had U.S. President George W. Bush’s face pasted to the body of a man.
That character was being embraced by a woman in a miniskirt, who had the head of President Roh Moo-hyun. The sign bore the words, “Sending troops to Iraq is a crazy thing.” The image borrowed from a scene in the Korean film “Marriage Is a Crazy Thing.”
Presidents Bush and Roh may not have said anything about that parody, but earlier this month, the opposition Grand National Party made a stink about one that made fun of its leader, Park Geun-hye. Ms. Park’s face was adapted from a poster from another local movie, “Happy End,” which is about a housewife having an affair.
In the original poster, the starring actress was in her undergarments, lying on a bed with a man by her side. In the altered image, Ms. Park is in bed with two conservative newspapers.
What really raised the ire of the Grand Nationals was that the image was on the Blue House’s official Web site. The image sat on the site for 14 hours before the Blue House removed it.
The Grand National Party said it was an intentional attempt to harm its leader and demanded an apology from President Roh. Women’s groups called it sexual harassment. Two Blue House public relations officials were fired as a result.
A few days later, President Roh himself was the object of a parody, which happened to be on a Web site that was linked to the Grand National Party’s home page. In the image, Mr. Roh’s face was superimposed on that of Yoo Yeong-cheol, the confessed serial killer, and was accompanied by the photos of politicians and others who have committed suicide during the Roh administration.
Some attempts at parody are a bit puzzling. When Seoul Mayor Lee Myung-bak overhauled the city bus system, one satirist decided to express his or her frustration by putting Mr. Lee’s face in place of director Michael Moore’s on the “Fahrenheit 9/11” poster. The poster says, “Shut up and ride the bus!” The connection between Mr. Moore’s film and Mr. Lee’s policies seems tenuous at best.
Not only have parodies become a political weapon, they’ve provoked a debate on free speech limits. Last week, the Seoul Central District Court fined Shin Sang-min, a 26-year-old college student, 150 million won ($129,000) for his political parodies, particularly one that showed a politician as Spider-Man with the Japanese flag on the chest. He had posted more than 20 images before the April legislative elections.
“Satire and jest for parody works may be acceptable, but this parody image went too far in criticizing a specific political party and seemed to have a great influence on the election,” the ruling said. “Considering that the image tried to get the public interested in politics, a punishment with a fine is sentenced.”
After the ruling was announced, online groups popped up in defense of Mr. Shin, better known as celebrated parody writer Hayan Jjokbae. Some are even holding fund-raisers to pay the fine.
Mr. Shin leads a group of amateur parody writers, which contends that its activities are protected under the right to free speech that is elucidated in the Constitution.
“This ruling does not consider the freedom of expression and creation regarding parody images. It simply uses the election law to determine whether someone is guilty or not,” Mr. Shin said after the judges’ decision. He plans to appeal.
Measuring parodies’ influence is an inexact science. “Nobody can actually be sure about how big an influence a parody image can have,” said Mr. Park of dcinside.com. “The prosecutors, as well as the court, did not have hard evidence about that, like how many Web sites the image was distributed to or how many number of clicks the image got or how many netizens saw the image.”
Even though the Seoul Central District Court judges may believe satirical images are dangerous to democracy, the National Election Commission apparently did not, as it came up with the idea of having a “parody contest” before the April elections. The commission hoped that the contest would increase the participation of youths.
It worked, attracting a number of “netizens” who made up posters calling for a respectable National Assembly. One satirist spoofed the movie “Finding Nemo,” changing it to “Finding a Clean National Assembly,” and using a photo of the Assembly building.
Seo Hyang-hee, a lawyer who’s an expert on copyright issues, says there’s nothing in the law that bans parodies. “In this clash between the freedom of expression and copyright and election laws, freedom of expression is supposed to win, according to many precedents in and out of Korea,” she says.
Lee Myung-sun, an anchorwoman at the satirical online news site “Headingline News,” says, “If parody is such a big crime and violates election law, all of our staff members should be in jail.”
It’s just another form of mass communication, she says. “People believe TV news and newspapers are objective, but when you think about it, all the media is delivering news filtered through their own viewpoints, which is only natural,” she says. “Then what’s so wrong with parody images?”
Launched in March, Headingline News has become one of the most popular Internet news sites. The purpose of the site, says Choi Nae-hyun, chief of the 17-member staff, is to comment on society’s absurdities.
But there are standards to maintain. “Parody works need to be pithy as well as insightful, for it’s not meant to be malicious,” he says. Under this criteria, he says the images of Park Geun-hye and President Roh don’t qualify as parody.
In the end, Mr. Park says, even if parodies cause controversy, it’s not up to the courts to determine what can and can’t be the subject of ridicule.
“The problem is that there are some people who are taking advantage of parody images to propagate their ideas, which leads to another series of parody images from the opposing camp,” he says. “But it’s not for the law to decide what’s right or wrong; it’s for netizens themselves to have the intelligence to tell the difference.”

by Chun Su-jin

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