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Netizens Censored in South Korean Presidential Election
Harsh new election rule prevented online discussion and debate
Ronda Hauben (netizen2)     Print Article 
Published 2007-12-25 03:46 (KST)   
The recent election of Lee Myung-bak as the new president in South Korea has been heralded as a significant feat for the former Seoul mayor and businessman. What received relatively little media coverage, however, are the human rights violations that have marred the campaign.

Instead of the Internet being able to play a significant role in the 2007 presidential election, as it had in the 2002 election[1], it was prevented from doing so by harsh censorship of election-related online discussion and debate by the National Election Commission in South Korea.

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The netizens in South Korea were silenced. The NEC cracked down on and forbid writing on blogs and in online posts giving the netizens' views and critiques of the candidates. The more technically savvy netizens found a way to post their comments, videos and other online posts on YouTube or other non-Korean Internet sites, but for the less technically savvy netizens this ruling by the NEC stopped them from being able to freely discuss the election online and from exploring how to influence not only the election but the choice of candidate as they had done in the previous 2002 presidential election.

South Korea is allegedly a "democratic country." This crack down on Internet posting and discussion, in the words of a netizen, represented a return to the days of the dictatorship that Koreans had fought so hard to end.

"In no other democratic country is a person in trouble for posting personal views," some netizens noted commenting on the fact the election law rule meant that posting personal views on the Internet was treated as criminal activity.[2]

One blogger writes, "We now have a situation here, when the conservative media can say anything about the presidential candidates and suppress the opinions that they do not approve of, but the ordinary citizen does not have the same right. The media is free (because they are powerful), but the citizen is not What kind of lopsided democracy is this? As one netizen who received a summons said, 'The conservative media hasn't dealt with these matters at all, I want to let more netizens know about them.'"[3]

A number of netizens reported getting summons to appear before the police. Over 1,000 cases were referred to the police, and over 65,000 posts or videos were ordered to be removed. If a netizen is found guilty of insulting a candidate, he or she could get up to three years in prison or a fine of $33,000. [4]

When the NEC brought the harsh measures in June, there was a call to have the National Assembly lessen their effect. The Grand National Party was opposed, and the effort to lessen the effect of the measures did not succeed.[5](*)

Under the rule netizens were prohibited from posting long or short comments under online news items or opinions on Web portals or blogs about their views on a candidate. The rule went into effect 180 days prior to the election.[6]

Commenting on the rule, professor Cha Chang-hoon of Pusan University explained that he believed that the "NEC could actually be violating the election law by restricting User-Controlled Content (UCC). Electronic democracy has the merit of increasing public participation, although it runs the risk of slander. But voters are not fools. They should be given the chance to make up their own minds."[7]

It was predicted that the lack of online discussion and debate by netizens would lead to a lowering of the turnout at the actual election on Dec. 19. As predicted, the Korea Times reported that voter turnout in this election was the worst since the 1987 victory over authoritarian rule. The 63.1 percent voter turnout on Dec. 19 was substantially below the 70.8 percent turnout in the 2002 election. In the 1997 presidential election the turnout was 80.7 percent.[8]

The ban began on June 22, and was to end on Nov. 26 when official campaigning began. But even after the official beginning of the campaign, a number of summonses were issued, and posts ordered to be removed by the NEC.

"Do we need to get a permit in order to write on the Internet," one netizen wrote. "Ghosts of the dictatorial government are wandering around the Internet controlling netizens How do we make democracy now," asked a netizen.[9]
(*) This article has been amended.

1. See for example, Ronda Hauben, "On Grassroots Journalism and Participatory Democracy in South Korea," in Korea Yearbook 2007, edited by Ruediger Frank et al., Brill, 2008, p. 69-74. Also see Ronda Hauben, "The Rise of Netizen Democracy: A Case Study of Netizens' Impact on Democracy in South Korea."

2. "Blog Censorship in Korea," Nov. 1, 2007.

3. "Blog Censorship in Korea," Nov. 1, 2007.

4. Min-hee, "Strict Rules Make Election Dull on Web," The Korea Herald, Dec. 14, 2007.

5. Hyejin Kim, "Korea: Why the Internet Didn't Influence the Presidential Election This Time," Globalvoicesonline, Dec. 23, 2007.

Another article about the origin of the censorship provisions of the NEC is:
"Internet is silent as police crack down on political writing", Hankyoreh, Oct. 31, 2007.

6. Shin Hae-in, "Korea: Controversy Mounts Over Ban on Internet Election Messages," The Korea Herald, June 25, 2007.

7. "Korea: Controversy Mounts Over Ban on Internet Election Messages."

8. Jung Sung-ki, "Young Voters Shift to Center-Right," Korea Times, Dec. 21, 2007.

9. Hyejin Kim, "Korea: Role of the National Election Commission for the Coming Presidential Election," Globalvoicesonline, Nov. 13, 2007.

This article appears on my blog at netizenblog.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Ronda Hauben

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