Freedom comes in different flavors

Being in South Korea some time now I learned that freedom isn’t the same everywhere. Of course everybody knows this. But it’s different experiencing it first hand. Working as a partner in the WCU project showed me some examples of this. However I will not go in detail about that.

What I do want to talk about are the upcoming local elections in South Korea. On June 2nd 2010 the local elections will take place. The thing is, as in all countries these elections have to be organized and regulated. In South Korea, the National Election Commission is responsible for this. But in South Korea regulations are quite strict. For instance, eight (sic) weeks before the elections no surveys and  polls are allows that make any mention of a party or candidate. So opinion polls are not allowed (I’m not sure that’s a bad thing though). In the words of the election committee:

From April 3, 2010 to the Election Day, no one is allowed to use names of certain parties and candidates when he or she conducts surveys on the local elections. This regulation aims to prevent parties and candidates’ tactful political activities to increase voters’ recognition of them by using surveys. However, polling companies or news media commissioned by parties and candidates are able to carry out surveys with some limits: Not allowed 1) to use the name of parties and candidates and 2) to deal with contents considered as election campaigns.

Well, eight weeks is quite a long time. More reasonable would be three or four weeks, in my opinion. The official campaign starts only two weeks prior to the elections.

Not only that, Twitter – my favorite research topic these last months – has entered the political arena in South Korea as well. Candidates are stimulated to start using it by their political parties. Read this article. Unfortunately, that is, for the candidates the South Korean election commission does not approve.They’ll monitor Twitter activities closely. So close that they’ll subscribe to candidates’ Tweeting with their own Twitter username nec3939. I wonder what the 3939 stands for. I’d be interesting to follow which candidates refuses the NEC as a follower. Also, what would the consequences be if they did. For now the NEC has more followers than they follow themselves.

At the same time, the election commission has reached an agreement with online journalists about election reporting in the campaign:

As the 5th Nationwide Local Elections is nearing, the NEC hosted a signing ceremony of agreement for the clean online election culture with online journalism associations and companies on April 21, 2010. In the ceremony, ten representatives of online journalism associations and online portal companies attended. The NEC entered into an agreement with them about the following cooperation for: 1) objective and impartial reporting on platforms of parties and candidates, 2) proper action to unlawful notices and information related to elections and 3) creating sound cyber election culture to encourage netizens’ political participation.

You’d expect that this would happen without having to sign an agreement. OK I don’t think it’s possible to have complete impartial reporting. But then again who would want bland reporting.

On a positive note, the South Korean election commission knows how to stimulate people to get out and vote. See this pop-up of the English page. Agreed? This looks nicer than the Dutch election commission.

Restrictions also apply to the use of YouTube. All websites that have more than 100.000 subscribers are to have are to use a real-name verification system to monitor comments and uploaded video’s. So, Google’s YouTube was also subject to this regulation. But Google that thinks freedom of expression on the Internet is very important decided to limit comment and upload functionality on the South Korean YouTube. By doing so Google does not need to implement the real-name verification system. At the same time it’s very easy to subscribe to the American YouTube in doing so circumventing the rules. But who can blame them. And not all South Koreans agree with these regulations: see this article. This raises the question what it’s for, these regulations. Regulations are only effective when there is a likely chance to be punished when violating them. If not, they’re useless.

In my opinion, it’s the beginning of the end. And let’s be honest, a free and democratic country should not enforce these type of regulations. I’ll probably will be dismissed being a Westerner to have this opinion. Maybe so, but then again …. so what. Mark my words, it’s just a matter time.

OK, one final example: try to visit a North Korean website when in South Korea. For instance this one www.korea-dpr.com or this one www.kcna.co.jp (note the .com and .jp domain extensions). Outside South Korea you’ll be able to see them. But visiting the sites from South Korea, you’ll see this. OK, my Korean language skills are still not great but this page sends a clear message: DON’T GO THERE.

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Maurice Vergeer

I am Maurice Vergeer, working at Communication Science department of the Radboud University Nijmegen, in the Netherlands.