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[Editorial] Excessive measures

Ruling party, government pushing for bills that possibly violate basic rights, Constitution

Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae is facing criticism for ordering ministry officials to seek to enact a law to force suspects to disclose the passwords for their mobile phones.

The order appears to target Han Dong-hoon, a senior prosecutor currently being investigated in what Choo calls as a typical corrupt relationship between the prosecution and the press.

Han is charged with colluding with Lee Dong-jae, a former cable TV news reporter, to pressure a jailed businessman to reveal incriminating information about a pro-government political commentator.

But the probe is stalled as investigators found little evidence. Then, she raised issues with Han’s refusal to disclose the password of his mobile phone.

Choo is in a bitter conflict with Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl. Prosecutors under Yoon had investigated alleged irregularities involving officials close to President Moon Jae-in and indicted them. Ever since she was appointed as the Justice Minister, she has kept pressuring Yoon to resign. Han, one of the prosecutors who probed those in power, is close to Yoon.

Critics say the order goes against the Constitution that grants privilege against self-incrimination to criminal suspects. Article 12 of the Constitution stipulates that no citizens shall be compelled to testify against himself in criminal cases.

Punishing suspects for refusing to disclose their mobile phone passwords is as good as punishing them for refusing to confess.

Even two pro-Moon groups -- the Minbyon (Lawyers for a Democratic Society) and the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy -- demanded the withdrawal of the order and Choo’s apology.

More troubling is that the order was issued by none other than the Justice Minister who should set an example in protecting the rule of law and human rights.

If investigators secure passwords and peep into private information unrelated to incidents under investigation, they violate Articles 17 and 18 of the Constitution that guarantee the privacy of citizens and the privacy of correspondence.

The Financial Services Commission announced a measure last week to require financial institutions to collect credit loans fully within two weeks of home purchases if a borrower buys a house in certain areas less than a year after taking out more than 100 million won ($90,000) in credit loans.

The commission says it is undesirable for credit loans to flow into the real estate market. But the measure possibly infringes upon individuals’ private property rights.

Article 23 of the Constitution specifies that restriction of private property out of public necessity shall be governed by law. It is questionable if it is a public necessity to retrieve credit loans. It is the freedom of individuals to decide how they use the money they borrow, but the financial authority has no qualms about intruding citizens’ property rights.

The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport designated several regions of southern Seoul as areas requiring government permission for property transactions. If the offices of the regions do not permit house sales, residents cannot sell their homes and people outside the region cannot move in. This violates Article 14 of the Constitution that all citizens shall enjoy the freedom of residence and the right to move at will.

The ruling Democratic Party of Korea seeks to legislate a special law to punish those who speak ill of the May 18, 1980 Gwangju Democratization Movement. They can be sentenced to maximum seven years in prison or fined with up to 70 million won ($63,000). Gwangju is one of the party’s traditional support bases.

If citizens are put behind bars merely for mentioning the movement based on historical interpretations or academic viewpoints different from ones stipulated in the law, it would be an excessive penalty likely in violation of the Constitution that guarantees the freedom of conscience and expression as well as academic liberty.

Controversies also swirl around the plan by the Justice Ministry to introduce a system to award maximum fivefold punitive damages to news media for incorrect reports. Critics raise concerns that it will suppress the freedom of expression. The system, if enacted, runs a risk of being abused to gag media critical of the ruling power.

On the back of its overwhelming majority in the parliament, the ruling party and the administration do not hesitate to take steps that threaten the Constitution. They must roll back bills based on unconstitutional ideas.