The plans have drawn an outcry from civil liberty advocates, who see it as an attack on free expression.
While governments around the world ponder how to deal with the explosion of “fake news”, South Korea has come out swinging, vowing to use its criminal laws to curb what officials have declared a threat to democracy.
The plans have drawn an outcry from civil liberty advocates, who see it as an attack on free expression. They question whether liberal President Moon Jae-in, who was elected last year following a popular uprising that helped bring down a corrupt government, is pivoting toward a path taken by his disgraced conservative predecessors who used their powers and a criminal charge of defamation to suppress critics.
Some experts say Moon’s government is becoming increasingly sensitive about public opinion as it struggles with economic and social policies and desperately tries to keep optimism alive for its fragile diplomacy with North Korea.
Seoul’s Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon met with North Korea defector groups on Wednesday as he sought to calm criticism over his decision to block a North Korea-born reporter from covering last week’s inter-Korean talks to avoid angering North Korean officials.
Presidential spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom has snapped at conservative newspapers in recent briefings for supposedly exaggerating the rift between Washington and Seoul over North Korea policies.
The controversy erupted after Justice Minister Park Sang-ki last week ordered state prosecutors to aggressively chase down people spreading “false, manipulated information”. He said prosecutors should be proactive in detecting fake stories and misinformation and, when needed, push ahead with criminal investigations even when no one files a complaint.
They can apply various laws, such as defamation that carries a penalty of up to seven years in prison. The Justice Ministry also plans to revise laws to make it easier to removing suspect online content.
The National Police Agency said it is currently looking into 16 false stories that made rounds online. They include claims that Moon is showing signs of dementia; Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon paid tribute to North Korea founder Kim Il Sung during a recent visit to Vietnam; North Korea has demanded cash payment of 200 trillion won ($176 billion) from the South as costs for engagement.
A frequent target is YouTube, which is overflowing with video channels run by right-wing conservatives who often make bizarre claims against a president they characterize as a North Korea sympathizer.
Park Kwang-on, a lawmaker from Moon’s Democratic Party, lashed out at Google on Tuesday after it refused the party’s demand to remove some 100 videos, including those describing rumors about Moon, from YouTube. Conservatives say the ruling party is pressuring a private company for political purposes.