One of the accusations made by the political left during last year's presidential election was that the entry of Park Geun-hye into the Blue House would mark a return to the days of the Yushin Constitution in the mid-1970s when her father imposed authoritarian rule over the country. That claim was dismissed by most as overheated political rhetoric given South Korea's reputation now for being a vibrant democracy.
But I was quite surprised during a recent trip to the U.S. when discussing Korea with people who closely follow the country how often the case of leftist lawmaker Lee Seok-ki was cited as a possible indication that the bad old days of red-baiting and fear-mongering may be reviving even as President Park pursues a more moderate policy toward North Korea than her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak. Other troubling signs included the recent appointment of the legal official who drafted the Yushin Constitution as President Park's new chief of staff as well as allegations that the National Intelligence Service intervened in support of the ruling Saenuri Party using "black propaganda" in last year's presidential polls.
This appears to be part of a trend that began during the previous administration of the deterioration in the protection of freedom of expression, a subject that has received less attention than it should in both the international and local media. This development has not been ignored, however, by the United Nations and respected international human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, Freedom House, Reporters Without Borders and the Open Net Initiative, all of whom have noted the decline.
The fear is that South Korea could be following in the footsteps of Singapore, an ostensibly democratic country that has raised the suppression of freedom of speech to a fine art. The South Korean government has a range of tools at its disposal similar to those used in Singapore to suppress free speech and cripple the opposition, including a draconian national security law, strict defamation laws, restrictive campaign laws, Internet censorship and state ownership in broadcasting.
For example, Singapore government officials, including the ruling family of Lee Kuan Yew, have long used the threat of costly defamation lawsuits to curb criticism by both opposition politicians and local and international journalists. The number of indictments for defamation in South Korea, which were once rare, has sharply increased since 2007. The most noteworthy case was the government's defamation suit in 2009 against the MBC television program "PD Notebook" for its report on U.S. beef imports that triggered weeks of protest against the Lee administration that previous year. Although the PD Notebook journalists were acquitted of defaming the Ministry of Agriculture, the lengthy and costly legal case has had a chilling effect on investigative journalism.
Indictments and detentions under the notorious National Security Law also rose under the Lee Myung-bak administration, according to Amnesty International, and look set to continue under the Park administration if the case of Lee Seok-ki is any indication. The NSL was a favorite tool of President Park's father to harass the opposition, including the jailing of future president Kim Dae-jung. But in recent years, it has been used less dramatically, but routinely, to suppress dissent by leftist groups on the grounds that they are allegedly supporting North Korea. At times, though, the use of the NSL had reached absurd lengths such as the prosecution of the young satirist Park Jeong-guen last year for the Internet posting of altered images of North Korean propaganda that were meant to be a spoof.
The NSL also played a role in increasing Internet censorship under the Lee administration, with the government blocking access to websites that were deemed pro-North Korean. The government has imposed pervasive Internet filtering systems to block any pro-North Korean or pornographic material and the OpenNet Initiative ranks South Korea as being in the same league as China in terms of its web controls despite having one of the world's most advanced Internet infrastructures. Freedom of expression on the Internet has also been jeopardized by laws passed in 2008 that increased penalties for defamation, "false rumors" and malicious postings, similar to practices being implemented in Singapore.
It is the increased Internet censorship that helped persuade U.S.-based Freedom House to downgrade South Korea press freedom and freedom on the net rankings to "partly free" from "free" in 2011, while Reporters Without Borders has listed South Korea as a country "under surveillance" in its "Enemies of the Internet" survey.
South Korea at 50th is still a long way from the record low ranking of 149th for press freedom that Reporters Without Borders gave Singapore this year, but if current trends continue, it could find itself in the same neighborhood some day.
John Burton, a former Korea correspondent for the Financial Times, is now a Seoul-based independent journalist and media consultant. He can be reached at email@example.com.