What If It Were False?

The following set of pictures have been whirling around the Chinese bulletin boards:

The pictures are accompanied with a brief explanation (Wenxue City):

[in translation]  "We heard that many female TV program hostesses at Shenzhen Television had to rely on sexual liaisons with a certain senior official in the Shenzhen Municipal Government in order to rise in their jobs.  Recently, on the Internet in China, there is a set of photos of Shenzhen senior official Li Yizhen and a popular female Shenzhen Television hostess having a rendezvous.  These photos were secretly taken by someone with a digital camera phone.  This proves that bribery is prevalent in the government.  To succeed at Shenzhen Television, it is not enough to be pretty; it is necessary to offer your body to the administrative leader and satisfy him before you can succeed professionally."

I cannot establish the authenticity of these photographs, because I don't have a clue.  I have no idea what Li Yizhen looks like, and I have no idea which females are program hosts on Shenzhen Television.  Besides, the faces of the individuals are invisible in these pictures.  They could have been anyone!  I suggest that the authenticity of these photos and the associated story cannot be established from these eight photos alone.

I am interested in the implications for media responsibility and ethics.

I will begin with a description of a play/movie, "What If I Were Real?" as summarized by Richard Thwaites:

One of the most famous cases involved a man who built a whole career, in Shanghai, out of pretending to be the son of a senior Beijing military official. He secured all kinds of preferment from local cadres, and even several marriage proposals from attractive and ambitious young ladies, before his exposure. His case was turned into a highly successful play, later a movie, 'What if I were real?', which raised the very prickly point that, while this man had been severely punished for his imposture, thousands of 'real' off-spring of senior cadres were getting away with minor blackmail as a routine way to secure a comfortable life. Some officials tried to have the play banned, as a discredit to the Party, but it was defended at the most senior levels, and survived.

The premise of this post is, "What if it were false?"  So here is the fallout for the various individuals:

What if these photos and the comments were published in a traditional newspaper, in Shenzhen or Guangdong province?  Well, Li Yizhen can either discipline the Shenzhen newspaper (which is under his personal supervision), or sue a newspaper if it is located outside of Shenzhen.  Most newspapers and magazines must therefore be more careful about what they publish, but bulletin board systems and forums are much more lax in terms of these standards. 

I have just read this story in Ming Pao (via Yahoo! News):  The front cover of East Week magazine says legislative councilor Emily Lau has moved out from her love nest that she shared with her husband for 16 years and is seen attending a movie with another man in a front page photo.  When the Ming Pao reporter reached Lau, she cried foul and said that she had not moved out ("I just had dinner with my husband last night!") and that the man at the movie was her nephew (the son of her elder brother).  It is true that one can sue for libel in Hong Kong, but how much time or resources does an entertainer, celebrity or politician have for lawsuits?  If you shrug your shoulders and say, "That's life!" and that is exactly the life that you are going to get -- every morning, you will walk by the newsstand and you will dread what you might see on the magazine front covers ...

In another part of the world, they have a different solution to the problem of rumor mongering.

(Associated Press via ABC News)  Colombian Town Makes Gossip a Crime.  By Margarita Martinez.  May 16, 2005.

Malicious gossip often results in tears and anger, but in Colombia it had lead to murder and officials say they've heard enough.

Fed up with people targeted by false rumors turning up dead or wrongfully arrested, the mayor of a small Colombian town has made gossip a crime punishable by up to four years in prison.  "Human beings must be aware and recognize that having a tongue and using it to do bad is the same as having dynamite in their mouths," says an official municipal decree issued last year in Icononzo, 40 miles southwest of the capital, Bogota.

While some residents may denounce the decree as ridiculous, Mayor Jesus Ignacio Jimenez insists that in a country as violent as Colombia, gossiping can have serious consequences.  "It's a tradition for gossip to spread through small towns and it's a part of life, but what is worrying is that people are going to jail or being murdered due to gossip," Jimenez said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press on Monday.  Jimenez recalled a case when a man was killed because somebody claimed he belonged to a leftist insurgent group. Others have been thrown in jail based on similar allegations.

Sometimes, many of the town's 11,500 residents will leave work or school early and lock themselves inside their homes simply because an unfounded rumor had spread that members of an illegal armed group were on their way, said Milton Patarroyo, the town's human rights official.

Icononzo resident Edelmira Giron said the decree, which also calls for fines of up to $150,000 for spreading false rumors, has had an impact since it went into effect six months ago by making people "think twice" about what they say.

So far nobody has been arrested on gossiping charges, Jimenez said, while insisting that sooner or later it will happen.  "They just haven't yet been caught," he said.

Additional References: The Ambiguous Nature of “Collaboration” in Colombia; Chronicle of a Death Foretold, by Gabriel García Márquez.