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S. Korea’s anti-graft law gets mixed reviews

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A sweeping new South Korean anti-corruption law drew mixed reviews Wednesday, with supporters hailing an overdue offensive on a persistent scourge but critics bemoaning a rushed bill open to abuse.

The law, approved by a thumping parliamentary majority on Tuesday, has been nearly three years in the making in a country where public-sector corruption is a major problem.

Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index currently ranks South Korea 27th among the 34-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The new law crucially releases prosecutors from the need to prove a direct link between a payment or gift to a public official and his subsequent actions.

Instead, public servants receiving money, gifts or favors with a value of more than one million won ($913) will be liable to criminal prosecution, even if the gift in question bears no relation to their job.

Offenders face a jail term of up to three years when the legislation comes into force in late 2016.

Critics say the absence of a direct cause-and-effect burden of proof opens the way for officials to be targeted for political reasons and to abuse by law enforcement authorities.

And the media was scathing about the law’s extended scope to cover private school teachers and journalists, saying it opened the door to official censorship.

“It can potentially help the prosecutors and the police wield unlimited power over the media outlets criticising them,” the country’s top-selling daily, Chosun Ilbo, said in an editorial.

The inclusion of journalists was aimed at curbing the widespread practise of payments — especially by corporate groups — for positive coverage.

The Korea chapter of Transparency International welcomed the passage of the bill, despite its faults.

“The law is not perfect and has some problems … But regardless, we welcome it as a milestone to break the vicious cycle of currying favor through illegal means and offering bribes,” the group said in a statement.

The legislation had lain dormant for a number of years but was swiftly revived in the wake of last year’s Sewol ferry disaster that triggered a public outcry over cronyism and corruption by state regulators.

Under pressure to react, parliament pushed the legislation through — too quickly for some.

Kim Moo-Sung, the chief of the ruling Saenuri Party, voted to adopt the law on Tuesday, but acknowledged that the language of the bill was far from perfect.

“Any law that is applied too broadly or ambiguously undermines its own effectiveness,” Kim said.

The chairman of the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission, Lee Sung-Bo, insisted the law would prove a turning point in the future development of Asia’s fourth-largest economy.

“There were a lack of measures to battle the corruption rife in our society and a culture that overly values personal connections,” Lee told reporters.

“We believe this law will help uproot corruption in the public sector… and improve the transparency of the whole country,” he said. 

 



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