SEOUL, S KOREA: South Korea has arrested an elusive blogger whose predictions included the fall of investment firm Lehman Brothers, in a case that highlights government unease with the growing influence of online gossip in the world's most wired economy.
The 30-year-old man, identified only by his surname, Park, is accused of undermining the country's financial markets with his doom-mongering.
He faces charges of spreading 'groundless' allegations late last month that the government had ordered major financial institutions and trade businesses not to purchase dollars. Seoul issued a denial.
Park was detained on Wednesday and has admitted to the allegations, prosecution spokesman Oh Se In said.
But yesterday, Park told opposition lawmaker Lee Jong Kul that he had obtained information about the government's alleged order from some other websites and did not concoct it himself, according to Mr Lee's aide Park Min Woo. Mr Lee volunteered to be part of the blogger's defence team.
Those who spread false reports or stories on the Internet can be sentenced to five years in prison or a fine of 50million won (S$55,000).
Park - known widely by his pen name 'Minerva', the mythological Greek goddess of wisdom - described himself in Web entries as a former securities firm worker with a master's degree earned in the United States and experience in the field of corporate acquisitions and take- overs, according to local media.
But prosecutors found that Park was an unemployed resident of Seoul who studied economics on his own after graduating from a vocational high school and a junior college with a major in information and communication, Mr Oh said.
Park's arrest has since triggered a heated debate over how much freedom of speech should be tolerated in cyberspace.
The case also comes amid government efforts to combat negative comments on the economy in the media and from private sector economists. South Korea's export-dependent economy has been among the hardest hit in Asia by the financial crisis.
In about 100 postings on the popular Internet portal site Daum last year, Park criticised the government's handling of the economy and made predictions, largely negative, on the future.
'This may be the first case of restricting freedom of expression in the name of banning groundless Internet rumours,' Professor Koh Young Chul, of Jeju National University, told Yonhap news agency.
The main opposition Democratic Party denounced Park's arrest as an attempt to silence criticism of the government.
The Korean government's panic over Minerva and other Web-based rumour-mongers reflects a greater concern about the political role of the Net in South Korea, which has the world's greatest per capita access to cyberspace.
An adviser to President Lee Myung Bak, a conservative former businessman, admitted to the Financial Times last month that the government was trying to determine how to counter the influence of Internet chatrooms in Korean society.
Mr Lee was shaken last year by street protests over imports of US beef. The government had been unprepared for the degree to which passions could be inflamed in chatrooms and mass demonstrations orchestrated online within hours.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS