Defamation laws are important to protect individuals from harmful and untruthful information. Korean law is unique in that truth is not a defense to defamation unlike those of most countries. We weigh the benefits and consequences in this month’s debate.
Don’t Look the Other Way
By Eugene Jang Staff Reporter
Under Korean law, defamation refers to the act of harming a person’s reputation by publicly highlighting a true or false statement. However, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, defamation is defined as “the act of communicating false statements about a person that injure the reputation of that person”. In Korean defamation cases, the truth alone cannot be a defense unless specific conditions are met. In 2012, the Supreme Court overturned a guilty verdict issued by a High Court against a woman who posted negative (but truthful) online reviews about a postpartum care facility. Although the law is meant to provide protection to the reputations of individuals or organizations, its strict implementation within Korea comes with consequences.
Freedom of speech is a basic right that should be protected, with exceptions when it may cause social distress. While the Korean laws regarding defamation seem to be consistent with this principle, in actuality there is a large difference between social distress and the distress caused to the person being defamed. The law should not be expected to protect the honor of individuals; it should be the truth that does so. Otherwise, there is little social benefit to criminalize any truthful criticism aimed towards individuals. Seeking to censor the truth for the sake of reducing conflict can only amount to higher tension and more drastic methods of resolving the conflict later down the line.
There is also a major concern for abuse of this overprotection. In the highly structured society of Korea, there exists a serious social problem known as gapjil, where senior staff members or higher ranking social group members exploit or oppress subordinates. The root of this social problem is the power dynamic afforded by inequality: the oppressor has power over the subordinate, which allows them to evade consequences to their actions. The only way a victim can solve the situation is through communicating the problem. However, Korean law overcomplicates this process, since it is illegal to share information unless it is done in a purely emotionless and objective way. Although it is therefore not impossible to legally spread information about the misdeeds of an individual or group, there are extra hurdles placed in the paths of people who were already feeling helpless. For those in power, they are given an additional layer of protection with this law.
In general, this law contributes to a social atmosphere that abstains from criticism. Considering that in Korean society, small deviations from conformity can be considered dishonorable, describing almost any act of deviation is potentially illegal. Add to this the fact that Koreans have trouble with confronting conflict (think of all the posts sent to KaDaejeon to avoid actual confrontations). What you get is a culture of cowards who are afraid of expressing their frustrations and insufferable pricks that cannot accept criticism. When the only antidote, sensible and honest criticism, is threatened by the law, these attitudes can only become worse.
After a series of celebrity suicides caused by online witch hunting and false rumors, it is understandable that people wish to strengthen laws against defamation. However, expanding the conditions for defamation so that even the truth is liable cannot be the correct solution. It is a lazy and ineffective attempt to solve the problem. It simply cannot be in society’s best interest to discourage any criticism and encourage passive apathy. When the world is full of injustice and the law is encouraging you to look the other way, maybe the law needs to change before we can change the world.
Freedom of Speech Comes with Responsibility
By Youngil Ko Junior Staff Reporter
Korea has unique defamation laws that work differently to those of most other countries. In the United States and Canada, the truth itself is a powerful defense against charges of slander and libel — in other words, speaking the truth justifies any defaming statements as it is seen as freedom of speech. However, in Korea, one is only exonerated from defamation if the facts are true and free from any malicious intent. Some argue that the aforementioned law prohibits freedom of speech and needs revocation. However, it acts as a deterrent of indiscriminate witch-hunts driven by malicious intent in an ever-changing digital society such as ours.
The Korean libel law protects individuals and businesses against undiscerning aspersions sugarcoated with “facts”. Unlike the suggestions of those against it, the current law does not discourage active social criticism. Truth-bearing comments that benefit the “public interest” are free from defamation charges. Slander without tangible public advantage, however, carries contemptible intentions to commit defamation that should be frowned upon. For example, an anonymous reviewer may write, “The pizza was delivered two hours late. Do not buy anything from this store because its service is terrible,” in an online community. Even if they can substantiate the claims with empirical evidence, the second sentence can be a cause of defamation charges against the reviewer. The poster is liable for defamation charges as their comment carries a malicious intent to decrease the number of customers, and lacks any purpose to promote “public interest”. The law helps deter individuals from heaping calumny upon others.
Moreover, current defamation laws protect everyone from “hate speech” and indiscriminate witch-hunts that are aimed to defame a specific individual or business. With the prevalence of internet communities and social media, suitable verification of rumors and news cannot keep up with the speed in which they spread . Since this is the case, the law acts as a buffer against irresponsible accusations that are increasingly becoming commonplace. Furthermore, the damage done by defamation is irreversible. For example, many remember that the famous Korean entertainer Kim Heung-gook was accused of sexual harassment, but not many know that he was proven innocent. Even these strict defamation laws fail to protect wrongful bankruptcy of businesses and suicides of public figures caused by cyber-slanders.
However, the law does need some revision because it is ambiguous when it is applied. The term “public interest” is open to interpretation and fails to provide unequivocal criteria for judgements in the court. But at the same time, it is necessary to protect those accused from unjustifiable witch-hunts and defamation.
Therefore, although it is necessary to amend Korean defamation law, it is illogical to outright revoke it. Just because other nations’ defamation laws are different doesn’t mean Korea should change to fit the global trend. All things considered, damage, instead of the truth, should be the basis by which defamation is determined.
Freedom of speech comes with responsibility.