Free speech isn’t negotiable

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Free speech isn’t negotiable


Chun Young-gi
The author is a columnist at the JoongAng Ilbo.

Lawmakers led by ruling Democratic Party (DP) Rep. Lee Chul-hee have motioned a bill to penalize anyone who dishonors the May 18 1980 Gwangju Democratization Movement. The petitioners to the motion of punishing citizens for bearing views different from the incumbent government also drew support from the opposition camp — the centrist Bareunmirae Party and the Party for Democracy and Peace and leftist Justice Party. But we have to ask what give these lawmakers the authority to strip civilians of their rights to speak freely?

The bill proposes a prison term of a maximum seven years and fines of 70 million won ($62,000) for denying, defaming, distorting or spreading falsehoods about the Gwangju democratization movement. It also proposes a ban on any comments that can upset or dishonor the spirit of the civilian uprising in print publications, broadcasting, internet, forums, press conferences and on stage. Not once in my 30 years as a journalist have I confronted such blatant and broad censorship and prohibition in freedom of expression on a certain issue.

Such broad censorship existed only under the dictatorship of Park Chung Hee in the 1970s. The presidential emergency decree included a statute in the Constitution to remove press freedom and freedom of expression. The emergency decree banned any denial, opposition, distortion, slander and disinformation about the constitutional reforms under Park. The print and broadcasting media were barred from spreading and publishing information about the Constitution. Violators would face up to 15 years in prison.

It was the constitutional amendments then and the May 18 movement now, but the censorship and punishment hasn’t actually changed. During the emergency decree period, a university student who criticized the government’s propaganda campaign to make people eat more noodles as a replacement for rice while on a bus was put behind bars for three years for discrediting the Constitution and spreading misleading information. If the law passes, anyone who innocently claims North Korean involvement in the massacre of Gwangju citizens could go to prison.


Leaders of local governments, including Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, third from right, issue a joint statement that denounces any denigration of the Gwangju Democratization Movement, which took place in May 1980, at the National Assembly, western Seoul, on Feb. 24 [YONHAP]

The Gwangju movement was a watershed development in Korean democracy. Despite its sacred place in history, not every citizen needs to agree on the narrative of the event. If only one view is forced, this becomes a totalitarian society. But Korea is a democracy. A free democracy allows differing views and opinions from the government, parties, media and citizens and builds up consensus through public discussion. The DP, with roots so deeply entrenched in free democracy, is showing a dangerously totalitarian attitude.

The possibility of North Korean involvement during the armed clashes in Gwangju in 1980 was included in the May 18 Gwangju Movement Fact-finding Law that unanimously passed the National Assembly a year ago. One of the clauses requiring more investigation was the possibility of North Korean military engagement and the intrusion of North Korean troops. The plausibility still stands and is yet to be completely ruled out. Raising the claim therefore cannot be considered slanderous. The fact-finding law and the prohibition law are contradictory.

I personally cannot agree with the theory that North Korea was involvement in the Gwangju movement. But I also oppose an act outlawing having such thoughts. A crane’s leg should not be cut down because it is too long. Our hard-won democracy must not be compromised by returning to the dark days of censorship. The tolerance that is the basis of Korea’s Constitution upholds individual’s right to speak up, even if their view is controversial.

JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 25, Page 30
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