Disinformation tests South Korea’s commitment to free speech

SEOUL – In the history of South Korea’s struggle for democracy, the 1980 uprising in Gwangju is one of the proudest moments. Thousands of ordinary citizens took to the streets to protest a military dictatorship, and hundreds were shot dead by security forces. The bloody incident was sanctified in textbooks as the “Gwangju Democratization Movement”.

Right-wing extremists, however, offered an alternative and highly inflammatory view of what happened: Gwangju, they say, was not a heroic sacrifice for democracy, but a “riot” brought on by the northern communists. – Koreans who had infiltrated the protest movement.

Such conspiracy theories, which few historians take seriously, have spread rapidly in South Korea, where a political divide – rooted in the country’s torturous and often violent modern history – is amplifying online.

President Moon Jae-in’s ruling party has put in place a list of laws, some of which have already become law, aimed at eliminating false narratives on certain sensitive historical topics, including Gwangju. His supporters say he is protecting the truth. Free speech advocates and Mr. Moon’s conservative enemies have accused the president of using censorship and history as political weapons.

Democracies around the world are struggling to deal with the corrosive effects of social media and disinformation on politics, debating whether and where to draw lines between fake news and free speech. In the United States and elsewhere, the debate has focused on the power of social media companies, blasted on the left for spreading hatred and false conspiracy theories, and on the right for banning users like Donald J. Trump.

But few democratic countries have sought to control the rhetoric as far as South Korea considers it, and a debate is ongoing as to whether efforts to quell disinformation will lead to broader censorship or to encourage ambitions. authoritarian.

“Whether I am right or wrong must be decided through free public debate, the engine of democracy,” said Jee Man-won, one of the main proponents of the North Involvement Theory. Korean in Gwangju. “Instead, the government is using its power to dictate history.”

Arguments about which messages to allow and which to suppress often concern national history and identity. In the United States, debates rage on the influence of racism and slavery in the nation’s past and present, and on how to teach these subjects in school. Supporters of the new laws say they are doing what Germany did in attacking the Holocaust denial lie.

South Korea has long been proud of its commitment to free speech, but it’s also a country where going against the grain can have serious consequences.

Historical issues, such as collaboration with Japanese colonialists or the massacres of civilians in wartime, have divided the country for decades. Defamation is a criminal offense. Under bills pushed by Mr. Moon’s party, promoting revisionist narratives on sensitive topics like Gwangju or the “comfort women” – Korean sex slaves for the Japanese military in WWII – could also be a crime.

With the crackdown on disinformation, Mr. Moon is keeping his election promise to give Gwangju his rightful place in history. But by criminalizing so-called “historical distortions” it is also sinking into a political minefield.

The Korea History Society and 20 other historical research institutes issued a joint statement last month warning that Mr. Moon’s progressive government, which touts itself as a champion of democratic values ​​guaranteed by sacrifice like Gwangju, is in fact undermining them by using the threat of crime penalties to dictate the story.

A law sponsored by Mr. Moon’s party, which took effect in January, provides for up to five years in prison for those who spread “lies” about Gwangju. Party lawmakers also submitted a bill in May that provides for up to 10 years in prison for those who praise Japanese colonial rule over Korea from 1910 to 1945.

The bill would establish a “true history” panel of experts to detect distortions – and order corrections – in interpretations of sensitive historical topics, including Korean war killings of civilians and violations. of human rights under former military dictators.

Yet another party bill would criminalize “denying” or “distorting or falsifying facts” about a much more recent event, the sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014, a disaster that killed hundreds of students and humiliated the Conservative government. then in power. Conservative lawmakers, for their part, introduced a bill last month that would punish those who deny that North Korea sank a South Korean warship in 2010.

“It’s a populist approach to history, appealing to widespread anti-Japanese sentiment to consolidate their political power,” said Kim Jeong-in, director of the Korea History Society, referring to the domination bill. Japanese colonial. “Who is going to study the history of the colonial era if the results of their research are judged by a court?” “

Family members of the Gwangju protesters have praised Mr. Moon’s attempts to punish the purveyors of disinformation who denigrate them.

“As if the loss of our siblings and parents weren’t painful enough, they vilified us as the sidekicks of North Korean agents,” said Cho Young-dae, a nephew of the late Cho Pius. , a Catholic priest from Gwangju who participated in the uprising and testified years later about the murders. “They abused freedom of speech to add insult to our injury.”

Mr. Cho, who is also a priest, said the survivors of Gwangju suffered too long while people like Mr. Jee spread false information about the massacre. “We need a South Korean version of the Holocaust law to punish those who embellish the Gwangju atrocity, because European countries have laws against Holocaust denial,” he said. declared.

Recent surveys have revealed that the biggest conflict dividing Korean society is between progressives and conservatives, both eager to shape and censor history and textbooks to their advantage.

Conservative dictators have once arrested, tortured and executed dissidents in the name of a national security law that criminalized “praising, inciting or propagating” any behavior deemed pro-North Korean or favorable to communism.

Today’s conservatives want history to highlight the positive aspects of their heroes – such as Syngman Rhee, the authoritarian founding president of South Korea, and Park Chung-hee, a military dictator – and their success. in the struggle against communism and the liberation of the country. of poverty after the Korean War.

Progressives often focus on the undersides of the conservative dictatorship, such as the Gwangju killings. They also denounce those they call “chinil,” pro-Japanese Koreans who they say collaborated with colonial rulers and prospered during the Cold War posing as anti-communist crusaders.

Yet Mr. Jee says there are progressives who harbor communist views that threaten the country’s democratic values.

Much of this debate takes place online, where some very partisan podcasters and YouTubers have as many viewers as national TV shows.

“Ideally, conspiracy theories and irrational ideas should be rejected or marginalized through the public opinion market,” said Park Sang-hoon, chief political scientist at the Political Power Plant, a Seoul-based civic group. . “But they have become part of the political agenda here.” Mainstream media “help them gain legitimacy,” he said.

During the uprising in Gwangju, a handful of journalists were able to squeeze through the military cordon around the city. They found mothers crying over the bodies of their loved ones. An “army of citizens” carried weapons requisitioned from police stations, while people on the sidewalks chanted “Down with dictatorship!” Protesters dug into a government building for their last doomed confrontation with the military.

For many South Koreans, the protesters in Gwangju won. Students across the country followed in their footsteps and rose up against the junta.

Chun Doo-hwan, the army general who seized power in a military coup before the protests, blamed “vicious rioters” and “communist agitators” for the violence. In the late 1990s, he was convicted of sedition and mutiny in connection with the coup and the Gwangju murders. (He was later pardoned.)

“Thanks to Gwangju’s sacrifice, our democracy could survive and be maintained again,” said Mr. Moon during his visit to the city shortly after his election in 2017. He said that Gwangju’s spirit is growing. was “reincarnated” in the mass protests which ousted her predecessor, Park Geun-hye – the daughter of dictator Park Chung-hee – and warned against “intolerable” attempts to “distort and denigrate” the 1980 uprising .

But Mr Jee said his experience of expressing historical unconventional views should be a warning to South Koreans. In 2002, he placed an ad in a newspaper claiming that Gwangju was a North Korean covert operation.

He was then handcuffed to Gwangju and jailed for 100 days for libel, until his prison term was finally suspended.

He has since published 10 books on Gwangju and has fought more libel suits. Although critics have accused him of peddling wild conspiracy theories, his point of view has drawn an audience.

“If they hadn’t treated me like they did in 2002, I wouldn’t have gone this far,” he said.

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