[VIEWPOINT]Freedom of speech under attack

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[VIEWPOINT]Freedom of speech under attack

Revisions to the law governing periodicals outlined by 27 legislators of the ruling and the opposition parties and submitted to the National Assembly on Feb. 8 include features that clearly infringe on freedom of speech. The revisions oblige newspaper management to regularly report management decisions to the government, make it compulsory to organize an oversight committee composed of labor and management and establish editing regulations. Supporters of the revisions say that those requirements are imperative to guarantee newspapers' independence and management transparency.

Critics, however, say these provisions may in the end suppress a newspaper company's managerial freedom and its freedom to edit, and may serve as an excuse for the government to control the press. This type of control may serve to benefit newspaper companies in the short term, but will impede the wholesome development of all newspapers in terms of freedom of speech in the long run.

Discussions of the revised version of the periodicals registration act should be made in the context of freedom of speech issues instead of under the guise of press reform or suppression of the press. A U.S. constitutional scholar, Frederick Schauer of Harvard University, warned about the dangers of a "slippery slope" once a government begins to enact laws that regulate or control the press, saying that there is no end to the scope of restrictions. "Slippery slope" is a term that describes how easy it is to continue on a self-destructive or improper course of action once the original steps in that direction have been taken.

Citing Mr. Schauer, the revised draft of the periodical registration act pertains to potential threats to the substance of freedom of speech. Freedom of the press is an abstract proposition. This concept is made concrete through laws that should be the product of careful consideration and hard work.

But the revised draft makes observers wonder whether the legislators and government officials contemplated the question of giving a more concrete form to freedom of the press in drawing up the legislation.

One of the leading theories in the history of press freedom stresses the importance of differentiating between the content and extent of restrictions imposed on distinct media. Most governments worldwide impose harsher regulations on broadcast companies than on the print media.

In 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the press in Miami Herald vs. Tornillo, ruling that laws forcing newspapers to give people it has attacked in its editorials a right to reply to those attacks in the paper, violated press freedom.

The highest American court has said that the U.S. broadcasting regulatory agency can compel a broadcaster to offer a right to reply to criticism. Those U.S. legal decisions show how the abstract proposition of freedom of press may be implemented in media-related laws. The law should protect freedom of speech instead of restricting it.

Freedom of speech is important in monitoring and criticizing abuses of government power. Therefore, the press function of holding power in check would be weakened if more laws restricting press bodies were enacted. In the United States, the individual struggles against the abuses of governmental power were clearly shown during the 1950s and 1960s when American society underwent rapid changes. Civic groups that were monitors of government power could not overcome limitations that were placed on them.

Americans then began to realize that the press was the best institution to keep the government in check. Another U.S. constitutional scholar, Vincent A. Blasi of Columbia University Law School, said that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to the maximum extent possible because the press checks government abuses. Although the situation in Korea differs from that in the United States, the role of the press in overseeing the government is the same.

The historic facts reflect that laws enacted by the government to restrict the press may bring results, which go wide of the mark regardless of original intentions. If laws are enacted to regulate the press, they could at the end infringe the essence of freedom of speech.


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The writer is a profesor of journalism at Hanyang University.

by Lee Jae-jin

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