[Viewpoint] Freedom of speech carries risks

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[Viewpoint] Freedom of speech carries risks

I was once appointed by the Korea Publication Ethics Commission to review foreign periodicals for about a year. The job involved trying to determine whether imported publications violated Korea’s laws and tradition in terms of violence or sexually suggestive content.

It seemed that 99 percent of the foreign publications we reviewed were comic magazines from Japan. Although I was familiar with them from my days in Tokyo as a student on a fellowship and later as a foreign correspondent, I was shocked by their contents.

Comics from obscure publishers had high levels of violent and sexually explicit content. The authors appeared bored with comics dealing with sex between heterosexual adults. Most of the content instead focused on explicit sex among homosexual couples and youngsters, as well as incest. The violence took such extreme forms as decapitation, the mutilation of arms and legs and slicing open of bellies.

After review sessions, I used to go have a drink with fellow reviewers just to “cleanse our eyes.”

I thought, however, that such a culture made Japan the global superpower of comics and animation. Whether it was violence or sex, the Japanese comics all had imaginable stories and images. The comics that I reviewed had undergone preliminary screening and were sent to me because of their considerable suggestive contents.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, extremely educational, artistic and beautiful comics were being created en masse. That’s the power of the Japanese comics. Will Korea ever be able to catch up with that power? I thought it was impossible because of Korea’s culture.

After long debates on the sexually explicit and violent content of comics, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has finally intervened. On Dec. 15, the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly passed legislation to promote the healthy nurturing of youth. After the bill was submitted nine months ago, a heated debate took place for months on freedom of expression and protection of youngsters.

The key provision of the legislation was a ban on selling comics and animation that inappropriately portray unlawful sexual acts such as rape to readers under the age of 18. Although an accompanying resolution to the law urged “careful implementation” of the new rules to protect freedom of expression, Japanese publishers made strong complaints.

In Korea, freedom of expression was also a hotly debated subject this year. Very important decisions - more significant than the debate over comics in Japan - were reached.

Earlier this month, an appeals court acquitted the producers of MBC’s PD Diary, which had broadcast controversial episodes on American beef and mad cow disease.

Just a few days ago, the Constitutional Court ruled that a clause in the electronic communications law was unconstitutional after deliberating on the petition submitted by Park Dae-sung, known as the famous stock market seer “Minerva.” The court said the definition of public interest in the telecommunications law was ambiguous and abstract, siding with Park’s argument.

Both rulings were significant decisions for the promotion of freedom of expression. The philosopher Hegel wrote, “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.” Quoting from this lesson that wisdom takes flight only at the end of the day, Minerva’s owl in Korea took flight at the end of this year.

As a fellow journalist, I believe the production team of PD Diary must feel ashamed, even though they were acquitted, because the court also ruled that a significant part of their reports were false. Park should also conduct self-reflection.

But the wrongdoings of PD Diary producers and Park won’t be able to detract from the great importance of the two court decisions.

Actually, there are more people that should feel embarrassed. Lawmakers, who have failed to close loopholes in outdated laws for more than 40 years despite being aware of the problems, must be criticized.

And there are the group of intellectuals who remained silent or supported Minerva when Korean society was being shaken by his “predictions.” What have the economists and business management specialists done?

The Constitutional Court based its ruling on the belief that it should be left to the information market to judge whether something is true or false, rather than punishing the speaker unconditionally. As a result, intellectuals will now be responsible for judging the truthfulness of statements.

Will the shallow intellectuals be able to handle freedom of expression? Will Korea be able to change its tendency of relying on ideology more than facts next year? Unfortunately, my skepticism is deep.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Noh Jae-hyun
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