Saturday, June 29, 2013

Media and Condemnation by Memory in the Internet Age

 There was a good article appearing in Korea Focus, dealing with recent scandal in Korea on top levels. This is why I think it's worthwhile to read a lot of words.

There are many ways to silence or erase from memory a certain person or an event. In life, people experience or do things that they want to forget. As irony would have it, the things I want to forget are better remembered by others. Although such words do not have feet, they travel far. It is because the more people talk about something, it deviates farther from the truth and it makes people all the more curious.

Who are the most likely to commit an act that they wish people would soon forget? It is those who act in their own interest only but pretend it is for the greater good; those who talk about serving a cause and fulfilling duties but do not know what they are; and those who talk about due process and rational decision making but make decisions behind closed doors. Unethical actions of such people in power are probably the ones they wish would be forgotten. That being the case, these people have the power to make others forget; they possess the power to silence others.

The most terrifying form of censorship is probably by fire. To oppress any form of criticism, Qin Shi Huang of the Qin Dynasty banned all academic discussions and confiscated and burned books that made people think. This is a typical act of force by those in power. Banning and ultimately burning books that they do not want read and silencing others so they would not have to hear what they do not want to hear is censorship commonly equated with power.

The recent Yoon Chang-jung scandal made me think the above type of censorship would not work in this age of the Internet. How could anyone control the incessant flow of words created about the disgraced presidential spokesperson`s alleged sexual harassment? At one time, people were discussing the immorality of a public aide to the president, and soon enough the talk shifted to the difference between sexual harassment and sexual assault, one being a misdemeanor and the other a felony.

One conservative commentator wrote that this was a set-up tactfully conspired by the pro-North Korea, pro-Roh Moo-hyun group. Other conservatives lamented this is a disgrace to the whole nation. I believe not a few people want this incident and the truth to be covered. I will leave it up to your imagination to figure out who they are. What piques our curiosity is the modern way of erasing this incident from people`s memory. However, in this Internet era, an incident will never disappear. It feeds on itself and it is impossible to ban books and silence voices. How can the truth be concealed?

In ancient Rome, damnatio memoriae, or condemnation of memory, completely erased any traces of a person. If a person had brought disgrace upon the Roman State, his name would be deleted from the public records and his statue destroyed as if he had never existed. This would be, by far, the most severe form of censorship in that all traces of the person are removed so there is nothing left to talk about.

In the Internet age, the powerful brew yet another type of criminal penalties. In the old days, those who had power would reduce the amount of information to the maximum possible extent, but the media in our days is intent on excess production of information. Shortly after an article appears online about a press conference in which a man has denied all the allegations of sexual harassment against him, another column written a year earlier by the same person appears. In it, he denied any misconduct and wrote “the stress level goes up reading all the news about the ‘madmen` who ‘sexually harass` others.” This is how a person`s image is ingrained, and he is condemned to be remembered no matter how badly he wants to be forgotten.

The media, which mass produces words so that nothing is forgotten, is yet another form of authority. All that distorts and hides the truth is a form of power, and the media by nature performs censorship and covers the truth by amplifying words like bubbles. Has the media abandoned its role as a critic and purveyor of truth to stand up to those who seek to cover it up? Is the media in plain competition with the Internet, simply adding words without caring about the truth and producing meaningless information?

It is highly suggestive that Yoon, who had worked for the press, was appointed presidential spokesperson for not speaking the truth but for his bluntness. If the media follows the Internet logic and turns its back on the truth, then sensationalist journalism can turn itself to trial by media anytime, in which both the perpetrator and the victim are condemned to be never forgotten.  
[ Hankook Ilbo, May 23, 2013 ]
Picture and text belong to Korea Focus.