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UN expert: space for freedom of expression diminishing in the Republic of Korea

SEOUL (17 May 2010) – At the end of his 12-day country mission, UN Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue noted that the Republic of Korea has come a long way since the restoration in 1987 of a multi-party political system. However, he expressed concern that “since the candlelight demonstrations, the full respect for human rights, and in particular the right to freedom of opinion and expression, has been diminishing.” Mr. La Rue indicated that this situation is “primarily due to new and more restrictive interpretations and application of existing laws.”

While welcoming that the courts in the Republic of Korea have played an important role in upholding the right to freedom of expression in cases where there have been limitations to this right, he cautioned that “the increasing number of prosecutions creates a chilling effect in respect of the exercise of the right to freedom of expression, regardless of the outcomes of the decisions of the courts”.

Recognizing that the Republic of Korea has one of the highest levels of Internet connectivity in the region and the world and will host the G20 summit in November 2010, the UN Human Rights Council envoy said that “for the Republic of Korea to be a leader internationally, it must show its commitment to a truly democratic model of governance with full respect for human rights.”

In an end-of-mission statement*, the UN independent expert highlighted six main areas of concern and made preliminary recommendations regarding: restrictions and regulations of freedom of expression on the Internet, defamation, freedom of assembly, freedom of expression prior to elections, the National Security Act, public broadcasting, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, and the right to freedom of opinion and expression of public officials.

On the issue of freedom of expression on the Internet, La Rue highlighted three main concerns regarding prohibition of the spread of false information punishable by imprisonment, the role of the Korea Communications Standards Commission to delete or block online process through an opaque process, and the real-name identification system, which “has the potential to undermine an individual’s right to express opinions and the right to privacy”, stated the Special Rapporteur.

The expert also highlighted defamation cases and recommended that the Government remove the crime of defamation from its Criminal Code, and promote a culture of tolerance regarding criticism. He also emphasized that “public officials of all kinds should be prohibited altogether from bringing defamation actions”, adding that “public office entails public scrutiny, as part of checks and balances of any democratic system”.

He also expressed concerns that while the right to freedom of assembly is guaranteed by article 21 of the Constitution of the Republic of Korea and explicitly prohibits a license system for assemblies, “there is a de facto license system whereby assemblies may be banned and deemed illegal in advance for fear of traffic disruption and probable violence”.

The Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression also drew attention to the rights of Government officials, including teachers, to express their opinions both individually and collectively, and reiterated the recommendations of his predecessor and the Human Rights Committee relating to the amendment of the National Security Act. He also stressed that the principle of diversity and pluralism is essential in any public broadcasting system. Mr. La Rue also emphasized the importance of a strong and independent National Human Rights Commission of Korea, whose members he was unable to meet collectively, through the improvement of the appointment process of the Commissioners.

During his mission, the Human Rights Council envoy went to Seoul and Gwang-ju. In Gwang-ju, he visited the Mangwol-dong national cemetery, which constitutes a memorial for those who gave their lives for democracy in the Republic of Korea exactly thirty years ago in May 1980.

The Special Rapporteur emphasized that his objective was always to compare the current situation of the country with its past, rather than to compare the situation with other countries. Mr. La Rue stressed that “international human rights standards serve as a yardstick to measure whether the country is advancing or regressing in its human rights record.”

Mr. La Rue met with 16 State institutions; however, he was deeply disappointed that he could not meet with the President, the Prime Minister, nor a single Minister of Government. “Despite my requests, I was unable to meet with the Prosecutor-General nor members of the National Intelligence Service, despite the fact that I came to the country on an official invitation,” added the expert.

Finally, noting that many of the debates surrounding human rights are highly politicized in the country, Mr. La Rue stressed that “human rights, like justice, have no ideology. Human rights transcend political ideologies, and its respect should constitute a common aspiration for all individuals in Republic of Korea”.

“I hope that I can continue to engage constructively and openly with the Government of the Republic of Korea, and my mandate stands ready to provide any assistance as may be required,” he added. The Special Rapporteur will submit a final report on his visit to the Republic of Korea to the Human Rights Council, in 2011.

Frank La Rue was appointed as Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression in August 2008 by the United Nations Human Rights Council. As Special Rapporteur, he is independent from any Government or organization and serves in his individual capacity. The UN first decided to appoint a Special Rapporteur to examine questions relevant to the right to freedom of opinion and expression in 1993. The mandate, since reviewed and extended in 2008, involves reporting annually to the Human Rights Council on issues related to freedom of opinion and expression.


(*): Read the Special Rapporteur’s full statement at http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/opinion/.