A dubious rulingThe Supreme Court overturned a lower court’s ruling that found Gyeonggi Governor Lee Jae-myung guilty of violating the election law that forbids lies and falseness in public comments during campaigns. As a result, the top court’s ruling could expand the scope of freedom of expression during public debates and discourage prosecutions of candidates as a result of their debates. And yet effective mechanisms are needed to prevent recklessness and over-the-top accusations on TV platforms in an era where media campaigning has become pivotal in influencing voters.
The keystone in the ruling was whether Lee’s comment made during a TV debate among candidates for the Gyeonggi gubernatorial post in the June 13, 2018 local election violated the election law, which bans lies and false speech during campaigning. When Lee was asked by a rival candidate whether he had forcibly put his brother in a mental hospital, he denied it.
The first trial found him not guilty of a falsehood. But a higher court found him guilty and fined him 3 million won ($2,500). The second trial concluded that he misled voters.
The top court’s bench of 12 out of 13 justices was mixed. Seven advocated for maximum protection of freedom in political speech. They argued that live debates cannot be possible if strict rules are uniformly enforced without consideration of the context, given the time limit of Q&As and the need for spontaneity in responses. They found it difficult to conclude that Lee had intentionally lied. On the other hand, the other five justices said Lee was guilty since he had not told the truth. They worried that the majority argument could seriously impair fairness and balance in campaigns.
Gov. Lee was acquitted on a majority consensus. The ruling will likely influence elections onwards. If even ill-intended candidates do not tell the truth or make misleading comments, they may evade punishment.
After the ruling, cunning candidates can use smooth-talk to win over voters. As a result, the judgment of voters about candidates will become more difficult. The National Election Commission should be more prudent in arranging and hosting campaign debates than before. The commission also must come up with effective measures to uphold the top court’s ruling without hampering a fair judgment by voters.