We are living in an advanced information society. With the rapid development of information and communications technology (ICT) and the universal use of smart phones, a digital information society in the true sense has become a reality. Especially, the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020 has accelerated the transition of almost all sectors in the society including politics, economy, and culture into a virtual domain.
However, we are also witnessing the negative side of it as the number of people enjoying freedom without responsibilities hidden behind the online curtain is increasing. Anonymous doxing, ad hominem attacks and unfiltered expressions shake up the peaceful lives of many and even infringe upon human rights.
Recently, webtoons or webcomics are stirring up controversies in our society. The term webtoon is a combination of the word “web,” which means the internet, and the word “cartoon.” The history of Korean cartoon goes back to more than 100 years. Cartoons were published as books by publishers for a long time, but this traditional means is being replaced by online image files of webtoons. Even though the market for webtoon is getting larger each year, there are difficulties in introducing regulatory rules due to the characteristics of the internet.
Publications in the past were regulated to a various extent by the state. As the society advances and the positive law became systemized, freedom of expression began to be guaranteed as basic human rights. The Korean Constitution also guarantees freedom of speech and the press by stating it in Article 21. But one important thing to note is that the freedom of expression does not merely refer to the act of expressing one’s thoughts or idea. Expression is only completed once what is expressed is delivered to the other person. Thus, freedom of expression is composed of freedom to put one’s thought out and freedom of delivery.
The most problematic issue in freedom of speech and the press is that the expression of thought is blocked before the delivery. The Korean Constitution Article 21(2) bans licensing or censorship of speech and the press. Freedom of speech cannot be guaranteed if state power blocks the delivery of what is expressed in advance. The United Kingdom had abolished censorship in the 17th century. The Korean Constitutional Court viewed lewd expressions as blockable based on the interpretation that they are not expressions themselves, and later changed the interpretation of previous cases, judging that the described act is censorship.
The Constitutional Court seems to block any expression whether it be a lewd one as infringing upon the freedom of expression. However, it is also the Court’s view that one should be held accountable if the lewd speech gives harm to public morality and social ethics or violates other person’s right. What is expressed itself based on the freedom of speech should be protected, but the speaker should be held accountable for the violation of human rights and harm caused by the speech.
This is why the Korea Media Rating Board (KMRB) rates videos by age. Publications go through a similar process, and if the board views that youths need protection from the content, the sales of those publications are limited through vinyl packaging. The Korean Criminal Act states that the production and distribution of obscene contents are punished by law, and legal sanctions are imposed.
Freedom of expression should be guaranteed as much as possible, but not unlimited. Even if webtoon is a genre of popular art, it can be restricted if it deviates from social ethics or public morality. However, freedom of expression should be guaranteed in principle.
Kim Sang-kyum firstname.lastname@example.org
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