Some 30 Saenuri Party lawmakers, led by National Assembly Vice Speaker Jeong Kab-yoon, have proposed a bill to ban individuals from wearing masks or other face coverings during violent demonstrations.
The legislative move was prompted by the violent protests in Gwanghwamun Plaza last weekend. A huge crowd of demonstrators from an array of civic groups and labor organizations gathered in the center of Seoul to protest the government’s push for state-authored history textbooks and labor market reforms.
The rally turned violent and went out of control as hundreds of “professional” protesters brandished metal pipes and smashed police vehicles, trying to penetrate police barricades. Police fired water cannons at the riotous protesters to restore order.
Police said they have secured clips of some 600 demonstrators who went berserk and used violence against police officers during the tumultuous rally. Of them, 93 percent wore masks to conceal their identities.
The violence and lawlessness in the heart of the nation’s capital was shocking and lamentable. President Park Geun-hye held a cabinet meeting to condemn the masked demonstrators and tell ministers to come up with measures to root out violent protests.
The Saenuri lawmakers’ bill proposes to ban face-covering in a demonstration if public order is disrupted due to violence by participants in the event. Violations of the ban would entail imprisonment for up to two years or fines of up to 3 million won ($2,600).
This is not the first time lawmakers have attempted to make the wearing of masks at violent rallies illegal. All previous attempts have failed in the face of strong resistance from civic groups and opposition parties.
The Saenuri lawmakers’ proposal has also triggered an outcry from civic groups and the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy. Critics assert that an anti-mask law could pose a serious threat to freedom of expression and undermine people’s rights to participate in peaceful assemblies.
They also note that the National Human Rights Commission of Korea opposed an anti-mask bill in 2009 on the grounds that it erroneously presupposed that people wearing masks would hold illegal and violent rallies.
Yet anti-mask laws are in effect in many advanced countries, including Germany, France, Canada, Sweden and the United States. Germany, for instance, revised its criminal law in 1985 to punish protesters who disguised their identity in public meetings such as demonstrations.
In Canada, a tough anti-mask law went into effect in 2013. Those convicted of a violation of the ban face up to 10 years in prison. In the U.S., many states have anti-mask laws that date back to the mid-20th century.
Critics argue that Korea differs from these countries in that the state has a stronger tendency to abuse its law enforcement power. The proposed anti-mask bill, they say, would further tempt the state to use its power to crack down on dissenters.
The eruption of violence at the demonstrations last weekend highlighted the need to put in place measures to prevent professional protesters from showing up at rallies and going on a rampage.
One effective way to bring these unruly protesters under control is to ban the use of masks in violent rallies. In this regard, NPAD legislators are strongly urged to discuss the proposed anti-mask bill with Saenuri lawmakers. They should be able to find ways that ensure violence-free protests without undermining people’s rights to assemble and demonstrate.