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[Op-Ed] Freedom of Expression

Posted February. 06, 2010 08:16,   


“Deutbojab” is a Korean slang term used by netizens to indicate a low-class person who has never been heard of or seen before. The liberal culture critic Jin Jung-kwon, who called Media Watch President Byeon Hee-jae the name on his blog, was fined three million won (2,562 U.S. dollars) yesterday. A court said it convicted Jin for using a derogatory expression such as deutbojab. To this, the New Progressive Party criticized the ruling in a statement, saying, “If the use of deutbojab constitutes a crime, freedom of expression does not exist in Korea.” The party might understand freedom of expression as an absolute right that allows people to say anything they please.

No democratic country allows freedom of expression without limits. Article 21 of the Constitution guarantees freedom of expression but not to the point of violating rights and the reputation of others or undermining public morality and social ethics. Jin is free to say, “I`m a deutbojab,” but not to say, “You’re a deutbojab.” Byeon said, “If hurting someone’s reputation with a made-up story is freedom of speech, I also have the right to say members of the New Progressive Party take bribes. So will the party do nothing about it?”

Jin also said on the Web, “Byeon repeatedly published new media though they kept failing.” To this, the court ruled that Jin made up a false story since he failed to provide evidence. A law on the promotion of information networks and information protection stipulates that nobody can intentionally distribute information that defames others for the purpose of slander by disclosing facts or false information. This applies not only to a bulletin board but also a personal homepage and blog because information networks are open space.

Certain netizens think expressing anything on the Internet is okay because they can remain anonymous. Even a professor who made derogatory comments in an editorial based on false information said his right to freedom of expression was violated after police investigated him. Defaming someone’s reputation by spreading lies is not freedom of expression but a crime that deserves a prison sentence of up to seven years or a fine of up to 50 million won (42,700 U.S. dollars). In an unexpected surprise, the guilty verdict for Jin has contributed to advancement of Internet culture by serving as a sobering reminder for netizens that freedom of expression is not unlimited.

Editorial Writer Kim Sun-deok (yuri@donga.com)