Reporters Without Borders today criticised a South Korean court for fining
a student, Shin Sang-min, 1.5 million won (1,000 euros) on 22 July for
posting cartoons of national political figures online in violation of the
electoral law, the country’s first such punishment of an Internet user.
The Korea Times said he planned to appeal against the conviction.
The worldwide press freedom organisation said that "making fun of
politicians on the Internet cannot be considered a punishable offence."
Second Internet user charged with breaking electoral law
Another student, Shin Sang-min, was arrested on 23 March on the order of the National Election Commission. Like Kwon, he was released the next day but was charged with breaking the electoral law by distributing cartoons of South Korean politicians online. He and Kwon face a fine.
They are being prosecuted under an 18 March decree stipulating that electoral law provisions concerning the news media should also apply to the Internet. The electoral law bans the media from modifying or hiding a fact or from inventing or circulating false information about a political party or candidate during an election campaign. It also bans the publication of opinion polls of voters’ intentions.
Reporters Without Borders voiced shock today at the arrest and subsequent charging of Kwon, on 23 march, for doing no more than circulate pictures lampooning opposition politicians on the Internet. Kwon, a 21-year-old student, is accused of posting more than 70 of these pictures on 15 sites during an election campaign.
The organisation said it condemned the application of the electoral law to Internet users who distribute this kind of picture file to personal websites and discussion forums. The prosecution of this student clearly constitutes a violation of free expression on the Internet, it said, especially as the law says the election campaign does not start until two weeks before the elections, namely, on 1 April.
The National Election Commission (NEC) has had a lot more power over the Internet since the electoral law was amended. The law now forces Internet Service Providers to hand over the names and addresses of users who are suspected by the authorities.
When the law was amended on 18 March, the NEC said it was going to prosecute all Internet users who distribute messages that are offensive to politicians during an election campaign. It also said it would close down websites displaying this kind of content. But at the same time, President Roh Moo-hyun’s removal and the calling of elections for April have triggered a wave of political debate on the Internet.
The police said that Kwon, who has since been released, was charged with "disseminating false information". They said he had "violated the electoral law by posting pictures on websites other than his personal page, and by letting other Internet users download them". The posted files included a parody of a video game in which the losing team was replaced by members of the main opposition party and a cartoon strip showing the party leader as having no fixed abode after losing the elections (picture).
Many South Korean Internet users are very critical of the NEC’s new powers. Choi Nae-hyun of the website Mediamob said: "Charging Internet users... is nothing less then an attack on the people’s right to participate freely in politics".