The Korea Times 칼럼

광주의 추억: Memories of Gwangju (2011년 5월 21일)

divicom 2011. 5. 21. 08:10

May of 1980 was too warm for spring and few military officers in the Press Censor Corps on the second floor of the old Seoul City Hall building were in their proper uniforms. Many of them barely covered their torsos with white underwear and didn’t bother to put on more even when a 20-something woman entered the room.

Feeling awkward and embarrassed, I would present the ready-to-print copy of my paper’s next day edition to the officer in charge, who would censor all the articles, photographs and advertisements page by page. Sometimes the man or his fellow censors teased me, throwing sexual remarks at times, yet I tried to remain unperturbed. Displeasing the men was a luxury for me and other reporters who had to go there everyday to get the wet copy endorsed. If the officers put a cross on any part of the paper, the red marked part needed to be replaced by some other article or photo immediately.

The pre-publication censorship of news articles for papers and broadcasting was one of the first forceful steps Gen. Chun Doo-hwan and his followers took by expanding the martial law, imposed in Busan on Oct. 18, 1979, by the dictatorial President Park Chung-hee, to the entire nation on May 17, 1980, to the effect of further fueling pro-democracy movement. Chun and his cadets seized power through a coup on Dec. 12, 1979, one month and a fortnight after Park was assassinated on Oct. 26.

The paramount reason why I miss the five short years of President Roh Moo-hyun’s government so much is simple. He allowed virtually unlimited freedom of the press and the whole nation, including those who defamed him. It is sad and ironic that his people failed to return the trust and respect he had extended to them. They took the freedom for granted without realizing what a rarity it was and would be in the political history of Korea. Probably out of despair and shame, he chose to die by jumping off a neighborhood rock on May 23, 2009.

Ceremonies marking the anniversary of his death will be held this evening at the Seoul Plaza and in Bongha Village in Gimhae, South Gyeongsang Province, where he lived after his presidential term and died. The Seoul event, entitled ``Power to the People 2011,” will open at 7 p.m. with Han Young-ae, Ahn Chi-hwan and many other well-known singers on stage.

Over the last few years, the nation has been paying for their failure to appreciate the freedom granted by the previous government amid mounting worries that the 1980s were being re-enacted in Seoul as far as the freedom of expression was concerned. ``Freedom House,” the Washington, D.C.-based democracy watchdog, recently ranked Korea 70th among 196 countries and territories in the world in its ``Freedom of the Press 2011 Survey.” Korea’s press freedom was ``partly free” in 2010, according to the survey, downgraded from ``free” a year before.

``South Korea, which had long hovered at the low end of the `free’ range, slipped by two points, from 30 to 32, earning it a `partly free’ designation. Contributing factors included an increase in official censorship as well as government attempts to influence news and information content,” the Freedom House said. It also said that an increasing number of online comments had been removed for expressing pro-North Korean or anti-Seoul views.

Last week, a college lecturer and his friend were sentenced to fines of 2 million won and 1 million won, respectively, for painting a rat on a government poster publicizing the G20 Seoul Summit held in November last year. Although a rat is often used to make fun of the incumbent president, levying fines on these joke-makers seems to constitute a case of overreacting.

In a not so laughable move, a Korean Council for Restoration of National Identity (CRNI) is seeking to prevent UNESCO from including materials related to Gwangju Pro-Democracy Movement in the latter’s Memory of the World Register. CRNI is one of the many pro-government civic groups launched after President Lee Myung-bak took office. It reportedly submitted a report opposing the inclusion to UNESCO headquarters in Paris arguing that what happened in Gwangju was not a pro-democracy struggle but a provocation by 600 North Korean special commandoes. The group made similar claims to UNESCO at the end of last year.

One cannot but wonder why and how the government sits mum while CRNI so freely spreads groundless rumors about the uprising, marring the already aggravating inter-Korean relations, while its anniversaries are commemorated in state ceremonies attended by the President or prime minister and leaders of all walks of life.

It would be meaningful if Gwangju-related documents make it to the UNESCO Memory of the World Register as telling proof of the civil movement for democracy. Yet more important would be enlivening the Gwangju spirit of freedom by rejecting censorship and dictatorship forever. No journalist should be forced to tolerate the stupidity and darkness of the 1980s again. Whether you like it or not, this is 2011.


요즘 언론 상황이 1980년대와 비슷하다고들 말합니다. 5월 18일 다시 광주 민주 항쟁 기념일을 맞으며 부끄럽고 우울했던 이유입니다. 1980년 5월 인쇄 직전 신문 대장을 들고 서울 시청 청사에 차려진 언론 검열단에 드나들던 생각이 납니다. 올 5월과는 너무나 다른, 여름 날씨였습니다. 흰 러닝쳐츠 바람으로 빨간 색연필을 휘두르던 군인들이 생각납니다. 색연필 세례를 받은 것은 기사든 사진이든 광고든 바꿔야만 했습니다. 최근 프리덤 하우스에서 발표한 언론 자유 보고서에서 한국은 '자유'국에서 '부분적으로 자유'로운 나라로 전락했습니다. 노무현 정부 시절 아무런 제한 없이 언론의 자유를 누리던 때가 그립습니다. 오늘 저녁 서울과 봉하 마을에서 노무현 전 대통령을 기리는 추모제가 열립니다. 다시 한 번 그의 평안을 기원합니다.