Gwangju Biennale Symposium Series “Sweet Dew, Since 1980”
Media and Future Politics, 29 August 2014, Gwangju South Korea.
The “Burning Down the House” symposium titled “Media and Future Politics” was expansive and educational as expert media analysts and journalists from Thailand, Germany, and South Korea harmonized about the takeover of mass media by big capital, the uneven effectiveness of Social Messaging services as truth-telling devices, and the future of democracy under such conditions.
Moderator Kim Sae Jeong first noted that media laws and have changed the spirit of South Korea from Gwangju’s starting positive democratic changes to democracy moving backward in less than 20 years. Lee Young Woo then explained that the Gwangju Biennale, the oldest biennale in Asia is celebrating 20 years with a series of symposiums meant to broaden the discussion begun by Jessica Morgan’s “Burning Down the House,” a concept that implies that the past must be destroyed in order for a more positive future to be achieved.
Thai journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk, who has recently been detained for a week by the self-empowered Junta in Bangkok, spoke of the effectiveness and weaknesses of using SMS like twitter, Facebook, Line and YouTube when a society faces its second military overthrow in seven years.
“On May 22, 2014 General Prayuth took over, and as Army chief eventually appointed himself Prime Minister. The initial protests against the coup were massive with two weeks of chaos, but the streets quieted down, in part due to the protests moving into social media and away from the streets. In this way SMS helped the Coup retain power, which the Junta in 2006 did not. But this coup was the first in the world in the SMS era,” Pravit said.
He explained that the conflict was really between the Old Elite and the New Elite, and that the poor of Thailand, some 55-60 percent of the people were backing the new elite, while the middle class backed the old elite. Rojanaphruk’s 20 years of reporting for The Nation Newspaper (English) and as a volunteer for the online Thai language publication “prachatai.com made him so influential that the Coup leaders order number 6 was that he present himself to the “National Council for Peace and Order” t be detained. While behind bars he noted that left wing activists and business leaders were detained in the same camp, and became friends with his jailers.
“I made over 6000 new twitter followers without being able to send out a single tweet,” he said with a chuckle. “Many activists fled to as far away as Europe rather than face detention by the Coup. But I asked a guard if I could at least see my twitter account and he showed it to me on his phone, and I warned them that they can’t stop social media. Later they contacted the Norwegian company that administers Facebook in Thailand, and shut down Facebook for 45 minutes. The outrage was huge and swift as nearly one third of Thai people have Facebook accounts, and there are more cell phones I Thailand than there are people.
The drawbacks are that all the anger can be funneled into cyberspace and not on the streets. No matter how much SMS was used to fuel the Arab Spring, it was people on the streets that caused the changes, he noted. The bigger problem is that social media can be used by governments to spy on people. But, if the TV and man newspapers are censoring themselves out of fear of a Junta, then social media is what we have left to spread the news in varying levels of truth and emotion.
“A Colonel in the Army asked if I would add him as a friend on Facebook while I was detained. I did.
“The public in Thailand is somewhat divided as about 15 percent supported the coup. The coup itself was tactful not to arrest too many people, as, after a while, both the protestors and the army were simply tired out, Rojanaphruk said. “The Monarchy is still in existence in Thailand, and there are laws against saying anything against the monarchy, but this year’s coup is an expression of the old elite being overthrown by the new elite, it’s similar to the Chosun Dynasty be challenged here. I can’t say much more than that or I will be in prison again.”
IN the Q and A, Professor Kim Nam See of Ehwa Women’s University mentioned that Korea has a national agency that sets up multiple SMS accounts to sway public opinion. They also have a large staff monitoring social media, and tens of thousands of sites and accounts have been blocked. Rojanaphruk’s response: “I’ve had tweets that demand that I be arrested on one hand, on the other, the Coup Leader Prayuth has written a song called “Returning Happiness to the Thai People,” and you hear it everywhere and all the time, he said with a wry smile.
Thoug Jurgen Muller’s examples were more historical, he hit home with the Media’s triumphs and failures from the French Revolution to the backlash against Der Speigel newspaper when it reported that Germany was in effect defenseless in 1962, and editors and journalists were jailed, and the police seized mounds of papers and microfilm. The Media in conflict with government often loses such conflict, and loses its ability to be a watchdog of government corruption.
As Plato, the founding thinker of democracy, said, “Democracy does not work in an uneducated society,” to which must be added, ESPECIALLY a society uneducated about its government.
Muller then used the photographs, taken on cell phones, at Abu Ghraib to show how important citizen journalism can be. Most famously reported by The New Yorker magazine’s Seymour Hersh, who also exposed the Mi Lai massacre in Vietnam. But the images went beyond the New Yorker, and were amplified on SMS. He pointed out that in wars there is a strong tendency of the mass media in countries to turn patriotic. “”Political and economic powers have an enormous interest in the exclusion of elements which might irritate our ideologically shaped views of the world and the world of wars.”
He failed to remind us though, that no matter how horrific the tortures were at Abu Ghraib and other “extraordinary rendition” sites around the world were, the media so squelched the wrongdoing that George Bush was re-elected 1.5 years AFTER the tortures took place partly because the mass media in the USA depicted him as the more “moral leader,” then John Kerry because Kerry favored legalized abortion. Thus, when big business and big government collude to create red herrings like gay marriage and abortion and “tough on crime” those same issues can be used over and over to assure conservative, bloodthirsty, in effect fascist leaders continue to be elected.
Muller rightly pointed out that when the media gets too cozy with government, corruption is inevitable. He also rightly stated that in order for social media truth-tellers to remain free, they are going to have to find ways to hide their identities and which computers or phones they send their tweets and posts out on.
He ended with a story about how the Bild newspaper went overboard in digging up unsubstantiated facts about ousted German President Christian Wulff. “This excessive procedure feeding the voyeuristic greed of the public came along with a media competition of journalists to be the first to publish the ‘latest’ sensational aspect of the crisis. Newspapers and print media did not make use of their reflective and abstaining potential in relation to the much faster digital and social media.” Maybe they went too far, but at least they tried to hold power responsible for its actions. The last time anything like investigative journalism worked in the USA was Watergate, which forced President Nixon to resign in 1974. (OK, other than for false investigative journalism used to defame progressives by liars like Fox News.)
His best point being that if newspapers want to survive at all, they should slow down and take the time to analyze and dig deeper into the issues than the often emotional SMS world does.
Later, panel discussion member Han Seon, a research professor of the May 18th Foundation at Chonnam National University pointed out that in Korea 70 percent of the print media is conservative, and only 10 percent is progressive. This, in effect, vetoes independent reporting in South Korea. But big capital and Big Government laws are and even larger interference to the media playing its role as a watchdog of government.
There was a general dislike of reporters moving on to become spokes-people for the Blue House, or, in the case of the USA, a White House Press Secretary (George Stefanopolos) becoming a news star for ABC Network news.
Choi Jinbong was more on point with a speech titled “The Conservative Government’s Control over the Media and the Crisis of Democracy.” Pointedly he said “The media tryn to construct reality for people who don’t have first-hand experience. Government uses the media and the media is used to control public opinion. The Communication professor at Sunhonghoe University (where else?) who has also been a professor at Texas State University, returned to Korea after 13 years I the USA, said that “the gatekeepers (of news) are gone, and anyone can make a post, so who has the power? Many issues are not covered that should be.”
“Lee Myung Bak started his administration by putting the Korean Broadcasting Telecommunications Commission under the direct control of the President. This led to three papers (Dong –A, Chosun and Choong Ang) dominating the media on the print side, and legalizing large conglomerates as owners of broadcast media.” The result being corporate news, and only corporate news, for 90 percent or more of the people who care to look at or read the news.
“There are two types of control in South Korean Media that lower the level of democracy: big money and government,” Choi said. The laws passed over opposition that went so far as court cases were ruled illegal, but never overturned by the court. Illegal, but allowed to stand. Later, the National Assembly never even looked at whether these laws were legal or not, and the proxy voting that created news channels that attack individuals and political parties alike.”
“It’s like watching North Korean TV, anyone who opposes the government is defamed. The ruling party controls 13 of the 15 members of the broadcasting commission. This should be slplit evenly if we are to gain any measure of fairness in the media,” he continued. “Exaggerated and even false information distributed on their airwaves all went against the basic rules and principles of Korean journalism, misguiding the entire society.”
This problem continues, of course.
“Lack of media fairness initiated by MBC correspondents’ refusal to produce any content, were followed by the company-wide strikes in 2012… Park (GH) could be elected though she stems from Lee’s political ideology which disregarded and failed to communicate with the public, because domestic broadcasters, conservative newspapers and general programming channels made explicitly biased reports during the campaign period,” Choi said.
“Broadcasters are organizations that play a role in our society including observing and checking the authorities and forming public opinions after collecting different views. Therefore, they should be supervised by an independent organization free from any influence of the authorities, including government,“ he scolded.
“KBS’s reporting of the Sewol Ferry tragedy plainly showed how the Park government was skillfully reigning in and controlling public broadcast. KBS continued to release biased and false reports and omitted reports about government faults,” he added.
In the age of globalization, corporate and big money control of the media gives the public a biased view of the world, and almost no valid reporting about the plight of the impoverished, the real damage being done to our environment or the importance of independent investigative journalists playing their role as watchdogs in a democracy. Later, in the panel discussion he added that changing society or journalism from the bottom up will not work, and it is those at the top that have to be changed. “Capital has a huge influence over the media, and regulations have been eased to improve profits,” he said. Improved profits yes, more truth in the media, no.
Another panelist, Hyuph Namgun, said that we have to change the way we consume the news, and consume in general. He warned that the older+ generation contradicts itself when seeing the young consumerism as vulgar, when in reality, people in their 40s and 50s also have to stop over consuming, and demand that the stories about the suffering in the world be passed down to younger generations otherwise the suffering will grow larger in the future.
Panelist Yoon SHuk-Nyun pointed out that cross ownership of media causes a very cozy relationship between government and media, leaving no voice for the poor and powerless. “Conservative outlets ignore the issues of the underprivileged.
Han Seon added that the media showed the smiling faces of Israelis after their government attacked civilians in Palestine, and this warps the realities of war. She pointed out that journalists should have more autonomy and be able to write stories whether their publishers like them or not, if they are true.
Panelist Joo Chngmin noted that checks and balances are gone in the media. This leads to the public not getting accurate information
Panelist Kanf Chul-Soo also noted inaccuracies, in his case, in exit polls and the way the media covers elections in general. ““Leading candidates are allowed to duck debates,” (while lesser-known candidates are not interviewed at all).
Lastly, a questioner from Joengju, Kim So Gi, noted that in “Burning Down the House” itself, the work of Hong Song Dan had been excluded due to worries that it was too controversial. Three other artists had pulled out due to the decision to exclude the art. Apparently Mayor Yoon was worried about continued funding of the Biennale if certain art was allowed to be hung. “Empty Spaces are now where art could be at the Gwangju Museum of Art,” she said. Her point was that even art could be controlled by the government, and Pravit Rojanaphruk ended the discussion with a point about SMS reaities:
“Where is the truth,” he said, “Is it Surreal, Impressionist, Expressionist, or realist? IN SMS we get them all.” Muller added: “It’s a type of romantic reality.”
Every one of the presenters showed a different side of how the media is controlled by big business and big government in the age of globalization. There were few definitive answers as to how to changes this, but some good suggestions as to how to try. The almost sold-out room mostly stayed until the end, about an hour over the prescribed time.