The U.S. Department of State released its 2021 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. Also called the Human Rights Reports, the report aims to provide a record on the status of human rights in 198 countries and territories worldwide. This year’s report on South Korea raised concerns of significant human rights issues of restrictions on freedom of expression, including the existence of criminal libel laws; government corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; and laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults in the military. Notably, the report’s section on freedom of expression and internet freedom highlighted many of the issues Open Net is actively striving to improve through its legal advocacy.
Freedom of Expression
The Human Rights Reports point out that although South Korea’s law provides for freedom of speech, the government may limit the expression of ideas under defamation law and the National Security Law (NSL). The government may also limit the expression of ideas that the National Election Commission deems to be false under election law. It described South Korea’s Libel and Slander being used as a tool to “restrict public discussion and harass, intimidate, or censor private and media expression.” and stated that “politicians, government officials, and celebrities (are) using the libel laws to deter victims of workplace sexual harassment from coming forward or to retaliate against such victims.” Open Net has been critical of the country’s ‘truth defamation law’ and continues to advocate for change through its calls for legislative changes, its work in providing legal aid to defendants prosecuted for ‘truth defamation’, and challenging the law through constitutional complaints at the Constitutional Court of Korea.
The report included the ruling Democratic Party’s ultimately unsuccessful efforts to “pass controversial amendments to the Press Arbitration Act that would allow victims of reporting found to be false or fabricated to seek punitive damages from media organizations and online intermediaries.” Open Net, together with Human Rights Watch, Article 19, and Jinbonet, had written a joint letter to the President and the National Assembly expressing serious concern about the proposed amendments that would seriously impair freedom of expression, freedom of information and media freedom, and would discourage critical reporting by the media. Open Net had assisted in organizing a media briefing presenting the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression Irene Khan, who also pointed to the amendment’s incongruity with the international human rights standard.
On internet freedom in South Korea, the report made the general assessment that “there were some government restrictions on internet access, and the government monitored email and internet chat rooms with wide legal authority.” The report referred to a January 2021 Constitutional Court decision that Open Net was successful in, where the Constitutional Court struck down an election campaign law that had required individuals to use their real names when posting online about upcoming elections. The report also mentioned the ‘real-name gaming’ law previously used to shut down gaming for individuals younger than age 16 between midnight and 6:00 a.m. Open Net’s constitutional complaint to have the law struck down is currently in deliberation at the Constitutional Court of Korea.
The report also took note of the Korea Communications Standards Commission’s practice of blocking websites it deemed harmful citing that it had blocked 31,085 websites from January to August and 211,949 sites in 2020. Open Net, as a part of an international coalition in support of women’s sexual and reproductive rights and access to information on women’s health, filed a suit against the Korea Communications Standards Commission’s ruling to block South Korea’s access to womenonweb.kr in March of this year. KCSC’s legal mandate is to deliberate and take down as “necessary for nurturing communication ethics”, a standard both too vague and too broad to meet the international human rights standard under which many lawful postings were taken down (see here for more).