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[Freedom Voice] Defamation should be solved civilly, not criminally

프리덤인턴 | 2014.05.25 21:11 | 조회: 562 | 덧글보기(0)
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An American friend recently told me about an old saying: “You have the right to tell me to go to hell, and I have the right not to go.” That is, people can disagree, even in a tough way sometimes, without anyone calling the police.

He says that he is very careful about disagreeing with or commenting about Koreans. He has seen so many cases of Koreans suing each other for defamation that he doesn’t want to end up in court for a slip of the tongue.

I asked him what America is like in comparison, when it comes to suing for slander or libel. Only sixteen of the 50 American states have criminal defamation laws in place, and even in those cases, it is rare for cases to get to court.

In contrast, we have too many defamation lawsuits in our country that are handled as “criminal offenses.” It seems as though some people rush to the police station to file a lawsuit when they see a displeasing comment online.

Voltaire, the 18th century French writer, once wrote in a letter: "I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.” In Korea, the approach by so many is: “I detest what you write, and I’m going to take you to court to see if I can make you go bankrupt.”

Even among the people around me, I have seen people go to court to sue for defamation. It has become a country in which it is dangerous to even state your own opinion. Many people who commented on the recent Sewol ferry disaster have been hit with lawsuits for defamation and slander. More people are expected to be added to the ever increasing list of offenders and convicts in Korea.

This isn’t to say that I believe we should neglect taking appropriate measures for those who defame and commit hate-speech and crimes. It is not only sticks and stones that can harm others. Defamation and insults can harm with words. Thus, victims should be compensated for costs and harm. But this problem should be solved civilly between those involved, not in the criminal courts.

Of course, there are situations that cannot be solved in the civil courts, such as fraud or violence. In those circumstances, it is necessary for the police and prosecutors to get involved because it would be difficult for victims to attempt to collect compensation from perpetrators. There is no guarantee, either, that the perpetrator would have enough money in his bank account to account for all the damage caused. Such a person will only be contained by locking him or her in prison. That is why it is reasonable to criminally prosecute such illegal activity instead of attempting to solve it in the civil courts.

The case of defamation and insult is different from fraud and violence. It is usually not difficult to catch people who commit an act of defamation, the issue is whether or not it is necessary. Some may try to avoid paying compensation. These issues are better resolved in the civil courts.

It only becomes hyperbolic when criminal punishment is added additionally to punish an offender twice. In any case, even if a prison sentence were served, compensation (or restoration in some cases- depends on the law of that country) must be given. It is simply too much to try to solve these defamation cases criminally when they could very well be solved through compensation. Defamation is not as detrimental as violence or fraud.

Criminalizing the voicing of opinions chills free speech, limits open dialogue, and decreases the exchange of ideas in a free society. This is recognized internationally by organizations such as the United Nations and OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe). Both organizations discourage criminal punishment as a deterrent and penalty for defamation, meaning it should be handled civilly to keep the flow of ideas moving.

Our country should take after those international organizations. Prosecutors should not be too quick to intervene in the quarrels of civilians. I hope to never see people becoming criminals just because they say something others deem to be wrong. The test of your support of free speech is not allowing speech that you like, but even allowing speech you may disagree with. Of course, if you disagree, you are free to tell me to go to hell, and I am free not to go.


Kim Chung-Ho is the CEO and founder of Freedom Factory Co. Ltd., in Seoul, South Korea.

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