Freedom to criticize

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Freedom to criticize

Can the state file a libel suit against its own citizens?

It appears the Seoul District Court believes the answer to that question is no - at least in principle.

The court recently issued a ruling favoring citizens in such a case, saying the state should protect freedom of speech as long as there is no malicious intent behind it.

The case involved a suit filed by the National Intelligence Agency against Park Won-soon, a lawyer, civil activist and the executive director of the Hope Institute. Last year, Park asserted publicly that the intelligence agency’s inspections of private companies hurt civil rights groups, which depend on these firms for funding. In response to his claims, the agency sued Park, saying he defamed the government and a state institution by uttering “false information.”

The court, however, said that the state and government agencies alike are subject to the public’s criticism and surveillance in a broad sense. Therefore, “the state is not eligible to file a libel suit against citizens,” the court ruled.

It also said that Park did not make the comment maliciously, whether or not his claims are actually true.

The ruling attracts our attention because it represents an objection to reckless lawsuits by the state against civilians. The previous administration had a tendency to suppress any criticism from the people that it did not want to hear from. During Roh Moo-hyun’s administration, the presidential office filed 10 civil lawsuits against news organizations. The president himself was even behind some of those suits.

But the government has failed to win the legal battle on this issue.

Under the Lee Myung-bak administration, we’ve seen a similar trend. High-ranking government officials have filed several lawsuits against civilians, but they have all eventually dropped the charges.

The problem, however, is that this type of lawsuit stampede is likely to bring about a so-called “chilling effect,” whereby once the government files a libel suit against civilians, it further dampens their freedom of speech going forward. Eventually, that creates mutual distrust between the state and the public, making it difficult to govern the nation.

Yet slandering the state too excessively should not be pardoned either. The Seoul District Court did in fact say that the propagation of facts that are clearly wrong or the malicious denunciation of the state is not protected under the law. Therefore, well-intentioned criticism and a sincere response by state organizations can create a foundation for genuine democracy.
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