It looks like debate over the constitutional freedom of speech in South Korea has been rekindled in the wake of the Sewol tragedy.
At the center of the talk is whether the opinions and claims posted on social networking sites ― some of which turned out to be far from the truth ― can be considered valid opinions.
Another question is, regardless of the content, is it all right for the government to signal a major crackdown on them in a move that could be interpreted as outright censorship and a violation of basic rights?
On the one hand, I can understand the argument that if it were not for the opinions from people on SNS, the government would still be clueless.
For instance, there was the post accusing the Coast Guard of being alerted to Sewol’s malfunctions almost an hour before it capsized, based on a phone call the Jejudo Coast Guard reportedly made to Danwon High School.
Later on, it was discovered that the Jejudo police had placed the call, checking in because the ship was late. The person who called said he thought nothing of it after being informed the ship was delayed on account of fog. But skeptics refuse to buy the excuse, insisting it was a cover-up.
The post, therefore, may have played a crucial role in forcing the media to dig deeper into whether there was more foul play.
Assuming that such issue-raising was valid ― and I am deliberately staying away from smishing and other clear crimes that don’t deserve attention ― what about the side effects?
What about the intense distrust against the government and authorities created by these posts, many of which have yet to be proven true?
In other words, where do we draw the line between good and bad issue-raising?
At the same time, however, the government’s response was hardly appropriate.
By announcing a clampdown, it has only proven once again it is the authoritarian administration that many accuse it of being ― not to mention that, legally, they don’t have a case.
Unless the authorities can prove the posts hampered the rescue operations, there is no way to press charges, according to legal authorities.
Then there is the way that the police illegally stopped the victims’ families from trying to head toward Cheong Wa Dae.
It is one thing for the authorities to take action if the people were actually gathered there, but nobody and no law can forbid citizens from journeying to the presidential office.
The only way to sympathize with the government is to believe that it wanted to avoid any scenes that may occur if those people did congregate in front of Cheong Wa Dae.
These actions, when they are coupled with the often groundless claims and thoughts circulating the Internet, deepen the public’s distrust.
In the end, this article has become pointless because I have no answers.
The only way I can attempt to sum it up is by saying that during these times of excruciating pain and anguish, it is up to the people ― up to us ― to demonstrate mature citizenship should we choose to go public with our opinions.
That would be one way to protect our constitutional right of freedom, while at the same time minimizing the negative side effects of recklessly using that freedom.
By Kim Ji-hyun, Business Desk Editor