Friday, July 25, 2008

Signs of reaction

Two worrying stories for Korean civil society from today's Hankyoreh below. Some more conservative readers might assert that the government is just asserting law and order in this case. But without laws governing protest that conform in practice and operation to basic freedoms of assembly or association, results like this are bound to happen as it becomes very easy to pin a demonstration on a particular organization or have stuff removed from the internet by decree rather than principled investigation. Anyways, it should be clear that these two stories are simply signs of reaction, which in the end seem certain to alienate people from the current government as they undermine basic normative principles of civil society.

Photo is from CINA.

Arrest warrant issued for 3 KCTU leaders
37 other KCTU leaders summoned for questioning in growing crackdown on candlelight protest organizers

Police began tracking down three leaders of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions on July 24 after a court issued a warrant to arrest them on charges of playing a leading role in organizing large-scale strikes and candlelight demonstrations against U.S. beef imports. The KCTU, one of the nation’s two largest labor umbrella organizations, strongly protested the move, saying they had been “targeted by police.”

Immediately after the court issued the warrant to arrest the three KCTU leaders, Chairman Lee Seok-haeng, Deputy Chairman Jin Young-ok and Secretary-General Lee Yong-sik, the Seoul Yeongdeungpo Police Station dispatched hundreds of police officers, some of them plain-clothed, and cordoned off the KCTU office in an aggressive move demonstrating its will to arrest them.

“Chairman Lee and others played a leading role in massive strikes held by the KCTU to demand renegotiations of beef deal,” a police officer said. “Last year, they also refused to be summoned on charges of masterminding a strike and occupying E-Land stores, in spite of several calls for them to appear. We plan to combine all pending charges to date and conduct an investigation into the KCTU leadership.”

Saying that strikes led by the KCTU on July 2 illegal, prosecution and police ordered 37 senior leaders of the KCTU, including Chairman Lee, to appear for questioning. Arrest warrants were issued for nine of the 37 leaders, including Chairman Lee and Yoon Hae-mo, the chief of Hyundai Motor Co.’s labor union.

In a press conference held at the KCTU office later in the day, Chairman Lee said, “The police action is unfair political suppression of a fair exercise of the right to defend the health of people and laborers. The government of President Lee Myung-bak must immediately stop its suppression.”

NPA orders Google to remove video from YouTube
Footage reports on allegations that NPA Chief’s brother invested in a hotel linked to prostitution

Controversy is flaring after an Internet crime investigation unit of the National Police Agency was found to have ordered Google Inc.’s YouTube, the world’s most popular video-sharing Web site, to remove footage from a South Korean TV report about allegations that a company in which a brother of NPA Chief Eo Cheong-soo invested was involved in prostitution. The NPA also ordered domestic Internet portals such as Naver and Daum to delete the video footage, which was originally televised by Munhwa Broadcasting Corp.’s Busan branch. Under South Korean laws governing the Internet, a person can ask an Internet portal to remove information from its Web site if the information defames the person in question. The NPA has been accused of taking unlawful and excessive action towards Internet portals, where freedom of expression and communications should be guaranteed, to defend the reputation of the NPA chief’s family.

On July 24, an official at Google’s Korea unit said, “We received an official statement on May 27 from the NPA’s cyber terrorism countermeasure team demanding that we delete video footage about a brother of NPA Commissioner General Eo Cheong-soo, citing defamation. That evening, we temporarily deleted two pieces of video footage. The Internet Protocol addresses for both pieces of video footage are blocked so users in South Korea can’t access them,” the official said. The NPA was found to have sent the same official statement to other local Internet portals such as Naver and Daum as well as video-sharing Web sites.

The original footage, aired by MBC’s Busan branch on April 23, reported that the brother of NPA Commissioner General Eo had allegedly managed a hotel that allowed prostitution. The report was credited with the “This Month’s Journalist” award from the Journalist Association of Korea in June. Yang Guen-won, the head of the NPA’s Internet crime investigation unit, said police had “sent an official letter, according to legal procedure, after judging that the controversial report broadcast by Busan MBC is related to the reputation of the entire police organization, not just Commissioner General Eo Cheong-soo himself.”

However, critics blamed the NPA for taking excessive action because, under the current laws, it has no right to ask Internet portals to delete the video footage and it has not taken any legal action, such as filing a complaint with the Press Arbitration Commission.

Kim Gap-bae, an attorney, said, “The Act on Promotion of Information and Communications Network Utilization and Information Protection permits a person to ask an Internet portal to remove posted material if the person feels they have been defamed. For defamation cases involving public officials, in particular, an individual, not a state organization, should file the complaint.”

Unlike domestic Internet portals, Google’s Korean unit strictly bans it from editing materials posted on its Web site. Google’s Korean unit asked a legal department at its U.S. headquarters to sort out whether the video footage could cause defamation, and Google’s U.S. headquarters replied that it could not be constituted as such. In spite of the reply, Google’s Korean unit had still blocked the footage for 56 days, or until July 23, when The Hankyoreh began investigating the issue.

This means that South Koreans cannot watch the video footage on the Korean-language version of the YouTube Web site, but the footage is still available at other YouTube sites based in the United States and other nations.

Internet users have criticized the police and Google’s Korean unit, saying, “Police are curbing freedom of expression on the Internet unconditionally, making the country a state in which censorship still exists.”

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