Wed, Jul 24, 2002 - Page 9 News List

The winds of change and the media

While official Taipei may have some justified gripes with the nation's media, few would suggest that Taiwan would be better off without it

By Rick Chu and Wu Pei-shih

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

Minister of Justice Chen Ding-nan's (陳定南) recent visit to the US drew the attention of local media not so much because he was the first minister of justice to visit Washington in 23 years, but because of a number of controversial comments he made during the trip about Taiwan's media.

Chen lashed out at the lack of media discipline in Taiwan while answering questions from reporters in Washington two weeks ago. He argued that Taiwan's media now enjoys much more freedom to cover news than its counterparts in the US and Japan, but that the mainstream media have been taking freedom of the press to extremes.

He accused the media of being immature and irresponsible, and of breaching personal privacy and minimum levels of decency and respect as they gather news. He also cited the reluctance of Taiwan's media to print corrections and readers' letters as examples of a failure to strive for balanced reporting.

He justified the prosecutors' raids on two media outlets in March this year as necessary to protect national security and state secrets, saying that freedom of the press cannot be used as an excuse for illegal activities. And he cautioned that freedom of the press in Taiwan has been abused to such an extent that the press has become a source of chaos and that a sort of "dictatorship of the press" had been established.

Few would argue that the quality of news reporting and general professionalism among journalists in Taiwan leave much to be desired, but this tongue-lashing by Chen -- generally regarded as one of the most outspoken and yet upright ministers in the DPP government -- proved too much for Taiwanese correspondents in Washington. A good portion of the coverage of his visit was centered on the strength of feeling -- not to mention the unexpected timing -- of his tirade against the media.

Ever since Taiwan's democratization began in the late 1980s, the vibrant growth of the media industry has been one of its defining characteristics. By and large the public has enjoyed a higher degree of free speech and has been better informed by a freer press than ever before.

Improvements to the institutional and legal framework within which the media operates, however, have struggled to keep pace. A boom in the mass media has led to fierce competition, which in turn has spawned many of the less savoury practices to which our TV screens, airwaves and newsprint bear testament every day.

The relationship between media and politics

The media and politics are inextricably linked, particularly in a young democracy like Taiwan.

During the martial-law era, the KMT government's high-handed censorship of the press and the institutionalized mechanisms by which it interfered with the media were all-pervasive and earned it harsh and perpetual criticism both domestically and abroad. The ownership or dominant share-holdings in the three terrestrial television stations by the government and the military rendered them little more than government mouthpieces.

Since the ban on new news agencies was lifted in 1988, however, the proliferation of all types of media outlets and the widespread awareness of the value of press freedom now makes a return to the bad old days almost inconceivable.

But the influence of politics on the media is so deeply entrenched that nothing -- not 14 years without martial law and not the nation's first transfer of political power two years ago -- have shaken it.

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