33 Freedom oF expression Like democracies everywhere, South Korea promises its people freedom of expression. “All citizens shall enjoy freedom of speech and the press, and freedom of assembly and association,” reads Article 21 of the Constitution of the Republic of Korea. But in reality, the right to speak without sanction is weakly upheld in one of Asia’s freest countries, according to Shin Pyeong, a law professor at Kyungpook National University in Daegu. “Freedom of speech cannot be regulated as a rule in the U.S., whereas it can be controlled for public purposes in Korea. The difference in perceiving freedom of speech (in Korea) eventually led to considerable regulation of the freedom,” Shin said. The constitution itself qualifies its own provisions on free expression: Neither speech nor the press, it says, should “violate the honor or rights of other persons” or “undermine public morals or social ethics.” This article, which predates the 1987 amendment that ushered in the democratic era, has at times been controversial. One local civic group, Citizens’ Action Network, has called for its revision or removal. In effect, praising North Korea is a crime. So is lots of other speech that can be prosecuted as defamation, including statements about the government. “In Korea, people can be punished for expression even if what they said is true,” says Shin. Unlike in the U.S., where truth is typically an absolute defense, Korean law allows for the prosecution of truthful speech if it is not “solely in the public interest.” The law also carries the threat of up to seven years’ imprisonment, whereas in other jurisdictions like the U.K., defamation is a civil matter. Especially significant for journalists, there is relatively little protection of speech about public figures. In the U.S., public figures rarely sue and almost never win. In South Korea, it is unremarkable for even the president to file a defamation suit. Since the birth of Korean democracy, almost every presidential administration, liberal and conservative alike, has taken journalists to court over their reporting. The exception, the administration of Roh Tae-woo, oversaw the prosecution’s arrest of three dozen KBS reporters in 1990 for an illegal strike. In August, a number of local civic groups sued a Japanese foreign correspondent for supposedly defaming President Park in an article on rumors about her whereabouts on the day of the Sewol accident. While the law allows third parties to file a suit on someone’s behalf, Park could choose to halt the prosecution as the subject of the alleged defamation. Tatsuya Kato, a correspondent with the Sankei Shimbun, a newspaper generally disliked in South Korea for its conservative and nationalistic leanings, was indicted in October and faces up to seven years in prison. Simply translating the offending article, meanwhile, has put one local online news outlet in the authorities’ sights. In September, prosecutors raided the home of a NewsPro reporter to locate a translator who transcribed the original article into Korean. “It is very unfortunate because the freedom of speech and expression is at the very foundation of democracy,” says Og Lim, a staff member at NewsPro. “We believe that the South Korean government is trying, through the prosecution, to scare and silence only us, a voice against the current administration. Especially given the fact that this happened immediately after President Park Geun-hye lashed out in the cabinet meeting against ‘offensive remarks about the president that were going too far.’ They may be afraid of South Koreans finding out through our translations how President Park and her administration are viewed and criticized by foreign media.” Lim also claimed that the prosecution lied about how it knew the location of the reporter’s house, saying it had followed the IP address of the article when it had in fact been posted in the U.S. Meanwhile, the investigated reporter’s wife, who had been in the house at the time of the raid, does not believe the document presented to her by prosecutors was a genuine warrant, according to Lim. No comprehensive statistics have been collected on the number of defamation suits taken against journalists. However, 3,223 people overall were convicted of criminal defamation last year. Meanwhile, the Press Arbitration Commission, a mediation body that can order outlets to pay compensation and issue retractions, handled almost 2,500 cases in 2013, the vast majority of which involved alleged defamation. Cases that do not see a settlement, which accounted for some 12 percent last year according to a sample of the data, are likely to go to court. Heo Eun-sun says that her last workplace, SisaIN magazine, was threatened with legal action “almost every week.” Heo herself has been investigated twice for defamation, including once for an article alleging that former Saenuri Party mayoral candidate for Seoul, Na Kyung-won, spent exorbitant amounts on skin care. Luckily for Heo, a drawn-out investigation eventually came down in her favor. “First the police and, then, prosecutors investigated … said that we didn’t do anything wrong,” she says.