REPORTING FROM SEOUL -- A member of a popular South Korean free-speech performance group on Thursday was sentenced to a year in jail in a move activists call a government crackdown on the Internet.
Jung Bong-ju, 51, one of the four hosts of the popular South Korean podcast “I’m a Weasel,” or "Naneun Ggomsuda,” was found guilty of spreading false rumors. The one-time legislator will also lose his eligibility for reelection for 10 years.
Many here call the judge’s decision a political death sentence.
Jung, a member of the opposition Democratic Unity Party, reportedly accused then-presidential candidate Lee Myung-bak in 2007 of being affiliated with BBK, a company that forged stock prices.
“I’m a Weasel,” a free weekly audio podcast, which can be downloaded from Apple's iTunes store and Korea’s “Daily Tackle” website, ranks as the world's most popular political podcast, with 2 million weekly downloads and 6 million hits in average.
In November, the podcast was awarded the Democratic Media Award, a top honor in the South Korean media.
Many are raising questions about the timing of the trial and Jung’s arrest. Postponed for three years after he was indicted, the verdict is seen as a push to stop the popular podcast.
“I’ve been involved in both politics and law, so I knew that the Supreme Court is a very political place,” Choi Jae-cheon, a lawyer and former legislator who belongs to the same party as Jung, said in an interview with a news blogger after the verdict. “To be honest, internally we didn’t have much hope.”
The Democratic Unity Party held a press conference at the National Assembly Thursday.
“Finding Jung guilty is a political verdict and a political revenge where the judicial justice has been torn down,” a statement read.
Jung Bong-ju, relatively unknown before the podcast rose to fame, played a character with endless self-bragging comments. He was given the nickname of "funnel,” because everything he says boils down to self-praise. But his barbs of South Korean politics, and often President Lee, were often seen as straight on.
His online fan club “Jung Bong-ju and the future powers,” has nearly 150,000 members. His book on current issues, "Run, Jung Bong-joo," came out a month ago and is still ranked among the top-selling books.
On Thursday morning, in front of the South Korean Supreme Court where the trial was held, hundreds of citizens gathered to rally for Jung. After the verdict that found Jung guilty was made, the former legislator came out to make a short speech.
“I had my hopes up, but now it looks like the rest of three hosts will have to carry on with the podcast,” Jung said. “I believe the three hosts will keep on doing the job of informing you on what you all must know.”
Many broke into sobs as Jung added, “Maybe today or tomorrow I will be going to jail.” After he finished the speech, Jung took a deep bow on the ground, with his forehead resting on the gray asphalt.
Through various social media platforms, the South Korean netizens voiced their anger over the verdict.
“Where is justice in this country?” one blogger ranted. “I can’t believe that the government thinks its citizens are blind. If they can’t read that, they’ve done something that would ignite the built-up public discontent on them, they are in a big trouble.”
The main host, Kim Ou-joon, said “the podcast will continue until President Lee’s term of office ends.”
But now, with Jung’s arrest, the podcast faces uncertainty.
"There are a lot of people inquiring about what's to happen to the podcast," Kim told a South Korean newspaper. "But we will announce our position only through the podcast."
Right after the verdict, the team reportedly recorded the last episode that will feature Jung Bong-ju -- at least for now.
-- Jung-yoon Choi