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Freedom at Risk: Blogger brought down by dire forecasts

Posted by commendatori on January 22, 2009

South Korea, it is often said, is the most connected country in the world.

A new-model democracy where 90% of households are hooked up to a fast-flowing torrent of news, views, opinion and online debate. And with it, it is argued, has come a new breed of opinion former. To guide and sway public opinion, no longer is it necessary to be a fat cat media mogul.

A broadband connection is all you need.


But as well as a computer keyboard, a voice loud enough, or interesting enough, to be heard above the electronic din is what really counts. Minerva was that kind of voice. Taking the Roman goddess of wisdom’s name as his nom-de-plume, Minerva became a one-man oracle for these troubled economic times.

Or bloggacle perhaps.

In hundreds of internet postings over the past year the blogger has spent his days pounding the keys, pouring forth his opinions on where he felt the South Korean economy was heading. “Downwards” and “fast” would probably be two of the best words to sum up his view.

But what appears to have really catapulted him to fame were a number of specific predictions.

A week before the collapse of the US investment bank Lehman Brothers, there was the uncanny prophet, predicting exactly that. And as the government fought to shore up the value of the Korean currency, there was Minerva accurately predicting its subsequent, dramatic slide.

Public interest

At the height of his blogging bonanza, Minerva was pulling in more than 100,000 online viewers for each of his postings.

But the government had him in their sights.

It argued that much of what he wrote was misleading or wrong.

The final straw came with his report that the authorities had ordered big business to stop buying dollars, an allegation the government denies.

But such was Minerva’s following that his statements were themselves affecting the money markets.

He was traced and arrested under a rarely used law; the offence of spreading false information with the intent of harming the public interest.

Self taught

Before his arrest, Minerva’s popularity had led to intense public debate about his background.

A retired economics professor with time on his hands, perhaps?

A still employed market trader with intimate experience of Wall Street and a number of other financial exchanges around the globe, went another theory.

His public unveiling, before his first court appearance, turned out to be somewhat of a surprise.

The ranks of waiting reporters and newspaper snappers found themselves face to face with a 31-year-old unemployed man called Park Dae-sung, who never went to university and who garnered his financial know-how by surfing the web and reading mail order economics text books.

Five years

The South Korean government has been accused of shooting the messenger.

But in its defence it argues that financial misinformation can do real harm, and that all jurisdictions accept some limits on freedom of speech, especially if that speech is used maliciously with the intent of harming the national interest.

“I wrote articles in a bid to help people who are alienated from government,” the blogger says in his defence. “Small merchants, individuals and laymen who have suffered from the financial crisis.”

Park Dae-sung has now been denied bail and is awaiting trial.

If convicted, he could face up to five years in jail.

By John Sudworth
BBC World Service, Seoul

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