Wed, Dec 08, 2004 - Page 9 News List

The Government Information Office is hurting Taiwan's image

Taiwan spends millions of NT dollars every year on an official information agency -- so why is the country so poorly represented in international media?

By Mac William Bishop

On an otherwise beautiful day not long ago, I stood in a parking lot in Kinmen watching with despair as I was forced to make a decision: side with the BBC and my integrity, or with the Government Information Office (GIO) and my career.

The immediate cause of my Faustian choice was a set of defunct speakers that had once been used to broadcast propaganda to China.

"We want to film the speakers. You said we could," the BBC producer said.

"Oh. Okay. Anyway, let's go look at a knife factory," a government official replied.

The debate quickly degenerated into a shouting match, and to be frank, I was loath to intervene. I had, after all, come to Kinmen specifically to lend what small assistance I could to the BBC film crew.

But they were leaving the next day. I live in Taipei, and must work with government officials regularly. It wasn't in my best interest to damage the relationships I had built up in the course of my stay over 30 seconds of footage in a TV documentary.

Soon, both parties boarded separate vans, and I stood in the middle as each side watched to see who I would choose.

In the end, I got in the van with the BBC team, knowing that it would take an excruciating night of KTV and drinking gaoliang to mollify the government folk.

The point of this tale is that none of this is particularly surprising to anyone who works with the creaking, outdated monstrosity that is Taiwan's official propaganda ministry: the GIO.

Nothing Personal

None of my complaints are personal: all of the GIO officials with whom I have worked are good people who sincerely do their best in a difficult job. And the BBC team I was working with has experience filming under much more trying conditions than they encountered in Taiwan. The breakdown that occurred was more a question of divergent goals than individual malice.

It is natural for governments to go to great lengths to shape their image in the international media. And any competent media outlet does its best to see behind this veil of government spin.

But there has to be a better way for Taiwan to get its voice heard than through the incredibly restrictive processes that the GIO employs.

Part of the problem is that, although martial law ended in 1987, most Taiwanese politicians and media outlets view news as a partisan affair that must be controlled by the establishment. There is little tradition of what Thomas Carlyle referred to as the "Fourth Estate" -- media with an independent, objective and supervisory role.

This is why the bulk of domestic news in Taiwan -- in any language -- is driven by press conferences, while the remainder is devoted to sensational fluff such as bus wrecks and domestic arguments. Journalists are encouraged to play the game, join the club and toe the line -- or be left in the cold with no access.

This occurs everywhere. But in Taiwan it is especially pronounced and is reflected in the quality and depth of local news coverage.

However, the problem is much worse than this. The pan-green and the pan-blue camps make little distinction between local and international media. Foreign journalists are viewed as tools to be manipulated for political advantage. The Ministry of Justice even has special agents tasked with determining the political alignment of these journalists.

This provincial view of the international media's role is detrimental to the nation's interests.

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