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What Does Professor's Indictment Mean For South Korea's Freedom Of Speech

29/12/2015 09:30 GMT | Updated 27/12/2016 10:12 GMT

Concerns about press freedoms in South Korea has been an ongoing discussion throughout the years. With journalists facing legal consequences because of any negative mention regarding the South Korean government, it seems as if press freedoms are being hindered. As these accusations of suffocating freedom of speech linger, the country's freedom rating has been downgraded. According to Washington-based watchdog organization, Freedom House, South Korea's press and Internet freedom ratings were downgraded and are considered "partly free." The organization also claimed that the downward spiral could be "due to the increased intimidation of political opponents of President Park Geun-hye and crackdowns on public criticism of her performance following the Sewol ferry incident.

The latest concerning controversy comes with the indictment of South Korean professor, Park Yu-ha. Her indictment came after charges of defamation due to her recent book that questions the commonly believed details of Korean 'comfort women.'

In her academic book, entitled "Teikoku no Ianfu" (Comfort Women of the Empire: The Battle Over Colonial Rule and Memory), she writes about the comfort women. Despite being published in August 2013, the book's publication was protested and the professor was forced to delete parts of the book. The book once again gathered attention as Ms. Yu-ha won the Asia-Pacific award for her work. The Asia-Pacific Award is given to authors whose works are considered exceptional pieces on politics or other issues of the region. The renewed attention in the book seem to stir up the opposition.

The details in the book were seen as libel by former comfort women and resulted in a large number of them filing a criminal complaint. They claimed to have been offended by her references of "prostitutes" and were insulted by her mentioning of "comradely relationships with the Japanese military." Prosecutors seem to agree and called the former 'comfort women' victims and sex slaves, not prostitutes as referred to by Professor Yu-ha.

Supporters of Yu-ha claim that her book was simple explaining the unfortunate truth about a topic that had long marred relations between Japan and South Korea. It is told in South Korea that 'comfort women' were forced to work against their will. Yu-ha explores the possibility that some of the women served patriotically. She claims that all of her evidence came from historical documents and she was only writing the book for academic reasons, not to dishonor any of these women.

"I made all of my interpretations based on historical documents," Yu-Ha said. "I have not identified any individual in the book, and I even feel that I emphasized how truly wretched the conditions were in which the comfort women were placed."

This is not the only incident that has led to speculation about the level of freedom the press has in South Korea. Back in August of 2014, a Japanese journalist named Tatsuya Kato made headlines after being indicted by South Korean prosecutors for allegedly defaming President Park Geun-hye. The Seoul Central District Prosecutor's office claims that then Seoul bureau chief for the Sankei Shimbun's article was based on rumors about the president's actions during and after April's tragic ferry sinking. With the charge of defamation, Kato was barred from leaving South Korea and was not allowed to go home to Japan. According to the Wall Street Journal, the published article made rumored allegations about where President Park was during the deadly Sewol ferry disaster. The sinking of the Sewol ferry was considered a national tragedy and claimed hundreds of high school student lives.

The Korean government called Kato's article a serious charge of online defamation, which can come with a maximum penalty of seven years in prison. Kato's court proceedings are still ongoing, although the travel ban has been lifted. This has allowed the journalist to return to his wife and three teenage daughters. He was also allowed to continue work. Ironically, he was given a new position before the charges to cover North Korean abductions of Japanese nationals.

Allowing a defendant in an ongoing case to leave the country is extremely rare. However, Seoul officials explain that Kato's employer guaranteed he would return for further hearings. They also explained that Kato's mother was very ill and warranted him to go be with her.

As Kato continues his journalistic career on South Korean topics, he has had to be mindful and stay away from the general public for his own personal safety. When his trial proceedings first began, he was subjected to violence and received many threats. In fact, there was one incident where his car was stopped in the middle of the road. His trial is ongoing as the court is scheduled to deliver a verdict soon. It is assumed that Kato will face some amount of jail time.

Japanese and Korean relations have had a rocky past, especially when it comes to the topic of 'comfort women.' Japan delivered a public apology in 1993 for forcing these women to work in military brothels during World War II. However, South Korea has denied accepting the apology and claims that the country has not done enough to make up for the wrongdoing to these women. The public had believed that relations were cooling since Kato's ordeal. However, with the latest indictment of Professor Yu-ha, it has refueled the concern for press freedoms in South Korea.

Free speech advocates in South Korea have began to come together to protest against the government's actions to muffle any free expression. Recent demonstrations against President Park were attended by a large number of anti-government protesters. They held signs that hinted towards wrongdoings by the leaders. Besides the incidents involving journalists, the protesters highlighted another event that was causing some contention with freedom of expression advocates. Recently, the government ordered that a single history textbook be used in all high schools. This state-approved book choice has been called an attempt by Park to impose a specific view of the country's history. Park's opponents claim the book would change the view of her father to make him look more favorable. Her father, Park Chung-hee came into power in South Korea via a military coup in 1961.

Several turned out to protest the indictment of Professor Yu-ha. Her fellow colleagues and other members of the academia world have written letters of protest on her behalf. Other have called for Ms. Park to resign from office. Newspapers have written scathing editorials about the leader. The debates and protest have become a concentrated effort across the country, as huge demonstrations organize across South Korea.

These types of demonstrations are met with mixed reactions around the world. Those that don't feel that freedoms have been trampled believe that protesting freedom in South Korea is slightly ludicrous in comparison to the dictatorship in its neighboring country of North Korea.

Despite the two differing sides, it can be agreed that these indictments are harmful to a peaceful society. Freedom House confirms that freedom of expression is experiencing severe setbacks in South Korea. As speculation swirls around the country's government and President Park Geun-hye's leadership, it seems punishing journalists and academic scholars will only lead to more severe censorship in South Korea.