Havel the People’s Hero, but Kim Jong-Il Makes Headlines

“Man is in fact nailed down, like Christ on the Cross, to a grid of paradoxes. He balances between the torment of not knowing his mission, and the joy of carrying it out. He is victorious by consequence of his failures.” – Vaclav Havel

“Great ideology creates great times.” – Kim Jong-Il

It would seem, from what we know about North Korea, that “great times” were few and far between in the communist state. This is particularly true in recent days with the passing of the country’s “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-Il. Images of mourners wailing in the streets and pounding the pavement with their fists in despair have dominated coverage of Kim’s death, with even the anchor of a state news broadcast fighting back tears as she announced his demise. 

One day after Kim’s death, another leader – one of the peaceful, profoundly respected type – passed away. Vaclav Havel, a playwright who helped lead the peaceful overthrow of communism in the former Czechoslovakia and then served as its president died in his country home. There were no dramatic breakdowns from news anchors, no hysterical citizens screaming to the heavens, and no creation myths to accompany his passing; people simply mourned a beloved artist and political figure. How dull.

Havel and Kim couldn’t have stood in greater contrast to one another. The former led his country through a nonviolent democratic revolution while the latter clung firmly to his communist mantra and his nuclear arsenal. The former oversaw the peaceful creation of two separate nations while the latter remained at perpetual war with his closest neighbour. The former stood for human rights while the latter would have likely jailed him for it. It seems somewhat backward, then, that the madman’s passing is receiving much more media attention than that of the peaceful revolutionary.

Perhaps it’s not as strange as it seems. Havel had been retired and out of the world spotlight for some time while Kim made headlines for his cruelty and political ramblings almost daily. In the west, there was much more interest in Kim owing to the way he’d imply nuclear threats like some crazed Looney Tunes character pointing an oversized pistol in our direction. Undeniably, at the time of their respective deaths Kim’s daily moves affected the world on a bigger scale that Havel’s, and the potential fallout from the North Korean’s demise remains a worry in the the global gut.

Of course, Kim also had fanatic mourners who served up fantastic front-page fodder and network news footage. From the moment the first images surfaced so too did suspicions that the local coverage of the public reaction to Kim’s death is largely nothing more than an extension of the propaganda that the state force-feeds North Koreans on a daily basis. Yet it gets lots of airplay, while images of thousands of mourners accompanying Havel’s casket through the streets of Prague registers barely a blip on many major media websites.

Maybe it’s not a question of whether Kim’s death is receiving too much coverage, but rather that Havel’s isn’t receiving enough. It would behoove the media to provide better insight not only into Havel’s passing but also his life and work, especially in times when many other nations currently face the challenge of not only ousting a repressive regime, but the struggle to install a progressive one.

Still, in journalism there’s an old saying that “if it bleeds, it leads,” which perhaps requires an addendum of “crying equals buying” – as in, buying our newspapers, boosting our ratings and upping the visits to our website.

Havel may have spearheaded a peaceful revolution, brought freedom to his people, helped orchestrate the creation of two separate states from one larger one, and earned worldwide love and admiration, but he had the unfortunate luck of passing away a day after Kim Jong-Il. Maybe the old journalism creed needs one final addition: “Those who make nations well are swell, but dictators sell newspapers.”

– Mike Crisolago