(News Focus) 'Digital Prison,' means to get justice, or breeding ground for false accusations?
By Woo Jae-yeon
SEOUL, Sept. 9 (Yonhap) -- When a South Korean court denied the request in July from the United States to extradite Son Jong-woo, the operator of one of the world's largest child sexual exploitation websites, and freed him, a local prison moved to take matters into its own hands.
It locked him up again -- virtually that is -- and punished him on its own terms. His personal information was made public in detail, along with his photo.
"Because of the judiciary's repeated soft punishments, criminals become more sophisticated and grow in audacity," the introduction of the website Digital Prison read. "We feel the limit in the country's punishment for worst offenders and want them to face social judgment by disclosing their personal information."
The public cheered. Soon, more "private executions" of alleged pedophiles, child abusers and murderers followed. Even information about some judges deemed too lenient toward heinous criminals was posted.
While the website was created in a show of public distrust in the country's criminal judiciary system, the apparently illegal site carries a perennial risk of punishing a falsely accused person.
Last week, a 20-year-old university student in Seoul was found dead in his home in an apparent suicide.
He was one of the alleged criminals on Digital Prison, and his private information, including his phone number, the name of his university and major, became public on the website.
The site accused him of committing sex crimes by photoshopping the face of a female acquaintance onto pornographic pictures and spreading them online. The man reportedly denied any wrongdoing.
In another case, a psychiatrist in Seoul was recently proved innocent by police after being wrongly accused in June of trying to buy sexual exploitation content online.
Psychiatry professor Chae Jung-ho at the Catholic University of Korea said he felt as if "the hell gate opened" and was "so scared" during a local radio interview Wednesday.
After his information was released on the website, he was literally inundated with more than 100 calls a day from anonymous haters, he said, not to mention dealing with the indiscriminate spread of false accusations about him online.
Even for a psychiatrist like himself who studied mental health for a long time, the incident was "too overwhelming" and he felt "helpless" in coping with it.
"The spread of false information in cyber-space could be more shocking than hurling insults face-to-face," he said, because it is being "disseminated indiscriminately" and shared by a large number of anonymous people.
In July, police started an investigation into the website for sharing illegal content, and they have been trying to track down its operators.
"It shouldn't happen in civilized society," said Han Sang-hyuk, chairman of the Korea Communications Commission, a state media regulation agency, during a parliamentary meeting Tuesday.
"What they do is (criminal) defamation," he said of releasing private information to punish alleged criminals.
Since Tuesday, access to the website has become forbidden.
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