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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on July 18)

Editorials from Korean Dailies 09:23 July 18, 2020

'False info' ruling'
Supreme Court broadens scope of freedom of speech

The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Gyeonggi Province Governor Lee Jae-myung should not be found guilty of violating the election law. The decision cleared him of criminal charges of spreading false information in the run-up to the 2018 gubernatorial election.

Lee won the high-profile court battle. The top court overturned a lower court decision that ordered him to pay a 3 million won (US$2,500) fine for making a false claim during the campaign period. Lee was indicted on four criminal charges, including abuse of power. A district court acquitted him of all charges, but an appeals court found him guilty of only one: circulating misinformation.

Finally, the 13-member Supreme Court ruled 7-5 in favor of the governor, sending his case back to the lower court for rehearing. Chief Justice Kim Myeong-su said in a verdict that Lee should not be punished for spreading false information for his remarks made during a televised debate with other candidates ahead of the local elections.

The verdict has saved his governorship. It has also given the green light to his political ambition to run for president on the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) ticket in 2022. Had the court upheld the lower court ruling, Lee would have been deprived of the elected post and banned from running in any election for five years.

Now Lee should focus on managing provincial affairs, especially to help about 13 million residents overcome the coronavirus crisis. He needs to prove his track record as governor in preparation for his bid to contend with other DPK presidential hopefuls such as former Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon.

The not-guilty verdict is also good news for the governing party, which is now beleaguered with sexual harassment allegations against Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, who died in an apparent suicide last week. The party has already been criticized for similar allegations against Oh Keo-don, who had to step down as Busan mayor in April. Former South Chungcheong Province Governor An Hee-jung resigned in 2018 and is imprisoned for sexually abusing his female secretary.

Gov. Lee welcomed the court action, thanking the top court for what he described as a fair and right decision. But he should not be too upbeat. He needs to understand why five justices were against him in the ruling. He and the ruling party should be careful not to become self-righteous and arrogant.

The top court's decision is meaningful in that it has expanded, to a certain degree, the scope of freedom of speech in the political area. At the center of the controversy was whether the governor lied about allegations that he had abused his power to forcibly commit his elder brother to a mental hospital in June 2012 when he served as Seongnam mayor. He denied in a live TV debate in 2018 that he had been being involved in the forced hospitalization of his brother.

Turning down the lower court's ruling, the Supreme Court decided that Lee's denial should not be seen as a deliberate and determined act to spread false information. This decision is likely to allow candidates to engage in more active and freer debates. But there are still concerns that candidates might try to use Lee's case as an excuse to spread groundless claims and misinformation against each other.

That is why lawmakers should revise the election law to make a clearer and more concrete definition of "false information" as well as what to do and what not to do. It is time to make fairer rules for election campaigns.

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