Home > Freedom of Expression > A Returning Panic of the Second “Minerva” —Cheonan Crisis

A Returning Panic of the Second “Minerva” —Cheonan Crisis

Fri June 15

In Wan Cho

Amid mounting tension of inter-Korean relations, the South Korean government has started investigating anyone who is spreading “false” information on the Cheonan incident. The Cheonan, a South Korean naval ship was suspected of being sunk by North Korean weaponry and has since worsened relations between both nations. Since May 20th, netizens, professors and even investigation team members have questioned the credibility of the Cheonan investigation report and spread allegations in forms of leaflets, blogs, posters, news columns, and reports.

In response, the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office apprehended and investigated around 20 cases. However, many are concerned that excessive judicial measures might dampen the freedom of expression particularly with the government’s prior handlings of other similar events.

The Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency (SMPA) reported that dozens of leaflets that challenge the Cheonan investigation report were found in college campuses, hospitals, shopping districts, and subway stations. According to Korea Times, some of the posts and leaflets read several sensitive slogans, such as “President Lee has ordered the military in a closed-door meeting to make full preparations to carry out a preemptive strike against the North.” SMPA Chief Jo Hyun-oh promised to “take the strictest measures against those who spread false rumors.”

The former presidential secretary, Park Seon-won, and the former member of the multinational investigation team, Shin Sang-chul, are under SMPA investigation for accusing the government of holding secret information and claiming that they, “wrote the ‘1 beon’ marking on the shaft,” one of the striking evidences supporting the multinational investigation team’s report.

Until recently, 10 out of 50 cases were scheduled to be handled by legal action in connection with the violation of National Security Law and the Framework Act on Telecommunications.

However, there have been continuous disputes and lawsuits to claim the violation of ‘freedom of expression’ in the Korean constitution. The internet daily entitled Voice of the People criticized the police by stating that “even if the blog posts suggest false information like claiming the South Korea’s preemptive strike, those cannot fall under any legal punishment.”

Last year, “Minerva,” a blogger well-known for his predictions on Korean economy, was similarly apprehended and imprisoned for spreading alleged economic information and destabilizing the Korean economy. However, in accordance with the freedom of expression guaranteed by the Korean constitution and the inapplicability of the telecommunication law, “Minerva” was acquitted and released.

This year, the government raised the issue again and incited public fear of creating a second “Minerva.” Hwang Hee-suk from Lawyers for a Democratic Society suggested that, “Just as the government instigated public fear to accomplish its intended goal by utilizing governmental authority in the case of ‘Minerva,’ the government intends to block any thought or suspicion regarding the Cheonan incident in advance.”

In line with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights1, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, Frank La Rue, in a press conference in Korea on May 17, also stated that “no one should be prosecuted for the mere expression of opinions, even though it may be incorrect,” which is why “prohibition by law of untrue and unverified information constitutes a disproportionate restriction on the right to freedom of expression.”

Regarding the Article 47 of the Framework Act on Telecommunications2, the internet daily Voice of the People criticized the act stating that it severely lacked clarity and proportionality. “Particularly, the terms like ‘false information’ and ‘political intent’ are not clearly defined and thus could impose limitations on freedom of expression.

Concerned people in an emergency conference on May 25 criticized the government that “in a situation where no understandable evidence is found, questions raised by the public should be regarded as a request for overall reexamination, and thus police investigation for these contents is an excessive measure to forbid people from speaking and to force them to trust the government blindly.” ■

1 “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers,”

2 “Whoever makes false telecommunication publicly using telecommunication equipment with the intent

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