Seoul's war on fake news puts free speech in peril, say critics

SEOUL • South Korea has announced a sweeping crackdown on "fake news", calling it "a destroyer of democracy".

Conservative critics of the government, however, cried foul and accused it of trying to impede freedom of speech.

Speaking at a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon said fake news has spread so widely in South Korea that it was stymying not only citizens' privacy but also the country's national security and foreign policies - including its relations with North Korea.

Mr Lee did not offer examples but he was furious last week after an incident that occurred during his visit to Vietnam for the state funeral of its president Tran Dai Quang. While in Hanoi, he visited the stilt house of Ho Chi Minh and wrote in the visitors' book that he felt "humble" before the "great" Vietnamese leader. South Korea fought against his Communist forces alongside the United States during the Vietnam War.

When South Korean media published a photo of Mr Lee's tribute, conservative critics called him a "commie" on social media.

Some even suggested Mr Lee wrote the tribute not to Mr Ho but to North Korea's founding leader Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of its current leader Kim Jong Un.

Mr Lee called the misinformation "vicious". He said: "Fake news is a public enemy hiding behind the cover of free speech." He ordered the police and prosecutors to investigate and punish those who "generate fake news with malicious intent, and systemically spread it".

He told the Korea Communications Commission, a government regulatory agency, to take action against online media sources that serve as "avenues for fake news".

He also called for a new law regulating such information, which some lawmakers in his Democratic Party were already advocating.

Opposition lawmakers denounced the government's move as an attempt to silence criticism, especially in the form of YouTube videos used by conservative critics to attack the government of President Moon Jae-in, whom they often call a North Korean stooge.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 04, 2018, with the headline 'Seoul's war on fake news puts free speech in peril, say critics'. Print Edition | Subscribe