Hong Ga-hye, the woman who impersonated a private diver of the Sewol ferry, gave false reports in interviews on TV. Needless to say, her heartless lies generated public rage toward the government when she claimed government officials had prevented her from conducting more dives. In addition to this scandalous behavior, there have been a number of rumors and false information intentionally spread about the Sewol ferry disaster on Social Network Services(SNS), creating suspicions nationwide and afflicting more suffering upon the victims and their families. Only one week after the tragedy, Korean police exposed 87 vicious rumors and 15 people were arrested. By May 7, 39 people were arrested for spreading rumors related to the ferry tragedy.
It is said that in Korea, those caught making and disseminating damaging rumors and false information can be subject to criminal prosecution in order to protect related people and government organizations. However, in reality, such specific regulations solely focusing on the spread of rumors do not exist. Therefore, there is debate as to whether the government should introduce legislation to prosecute or not, perpetrators of malicious rumors.
Legal Basis for Regulating Rumors
In Korea, the previous legal basis to consider a crime the spreading false information was Clause 1 in Article 47 of the Electricity and Communication Law. However, it was ruled to be unconstitutional as a result of the so-called “Minerva Case”, which involved the arrest of a non-professional commentator who posted false analyses about the Korean economy on a portal site under the pen name of Minerva in 2008. The accused insisted that the previously existing law violates the Constitutional right of Freedom of Expression, and the court agreed, due to the lack of clarity on an individual’s ‘purpose of spreading rumors’ described in the law. Yoon Sung-hyun, a Professor in the College of Policy Science at Hanyang University(HYU) specializes in Constitutional Law and he explained, “When taking into account that communication features a form of freedom of expression, enforcing restrictions or limitations must be based on specific and accurate grounds. Yet it is still controversial because such a judgment has to consider whether it is also against the constitution to regulate e laws by reifying the ‘public interest’ in order to protect the right of freedom of expression.”
Despite such complexities, the Korean government has applied legal restrictions on rumors and false information by arresting the sources and sentencing them to punishment. The basis of their punishment is not solely on spreading rumors or false information, but on the personal interests of the individuals or organizations affected by the rumors. “For now, there is no specific code to directly regulate rumors in the Korean legal system. However, it is possible to be punished under ‘the law regarding the promotion of information and communication network use and protection of information’ or criminal law for slandering or insulting a certain individual or private and governmental organization such as the maritime police in the Sewol ferry case. In regard to that situation, it seems that the government’s prosecutions are based on those laws,” Yoon added.
Vicious Rumors Harming Society and Individuals
Under the current legal system of regulating rumors in Korea, there still remains debate over whether the dissemination of rumors should be punishable or not. According to Realmeter, a polling institution, researchers found that among 1,000 Koreans, 61.3 percent think that spreading a vicious rumor should be considered a crime. Moreover, 64 percent answered that they believe rumors and false information adversely affect societal security. Lee Sin, a Sophomore in the Department of Chemical Engineering at HYU, expressed her opinion saying, “I think one of the most important roles of the government is to protect nationals in both domestic and external affairs. Some rumors have led to deadly consequences, while in the very least, they can cause social anxiety, and affect national security. So the government should restrict such rumors and false information that go beyond simple suspicions.”
In addition, when rumors and/or false information begin to spread, there is a strong chance that they will have a harmful impact on the related individuals or organizations. Such groundless attacks can seriously violate an individual’s personal life. Min Da-eun, a Sophomore in the Department of Education at HYU claimed, “It is unquestionable that the government protect its citizens including victims when there is a major nationwide catastrophe. With respect to the Sewol tragedy, I was shocked that there have been unidentified rumors degrading the bereaved families. In the case of such rumors and insults, I think there should be strong legal consequences for the sources of those rumors in order to protect the victims.”
Ambiguity in Regulating Rumors Legally
On the other hand, supporters of legal regulation of rumors and false information face criticism from those fearing a suppression of the individual’s right of freedom of expression. Lee Young-joo, a Professor in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at HYU and the head researcher of MyOn Institute of Political Aesthetics, a socio-political laboratory, said, “Actually, there have been a number of cases in which a controversial rumor turned out to be true, especially when Korean society was ruled under militaristic administrations. Since there have been no specific standards regarding rumors and reasonable suspicions, if all rumors had been suppressed, truths could have been discarded completely. Needless to say, regulations of rumors violate our freedom of expression.”
Furthermore, when it comes to the possibility of insulting individuals or organizations by spreading malicious rumors, the involvement of the government has become a serious issue and reason for debate. Lee urged, “I think that slandering others with groundless rumors is an interpersonal problem, not governmental. It is an ethical issue which can be resolved with mutual consent between individuals or through personal law, but it is not the government’s place to meddle. Also, rumors between individuals should be differentiated from rumors about the government. I think the government cannot sue people due to the rumors they spread since there is a huge information gap between the government and individuals.”
Still Rumors Persist
Rumors including conspiracies and false information have always existed, and whether it is a vice that has to be restricted or a reasonable suspicion which should be left open are two big questions.
Professor Lee proposed an idea for eliminating the fundamental causes of such rumors. “The root cause of any rumor is the public’s lack of confidence in the government. Therefore, to eliminate such rumors, the government should shed light on such rumors by providing more information to the public, thus achieving transparency,” he opined.
The view of Karl Raimund Popper, an Austrian philosopher, remains valid today: Do not try to eliminate conspiracy (or rumors). It is a natural phenomenon which has existed since Athens. Historically, this perspective seems difficult to challenge otherwise.