Sat, Nov 05, 2005 - Page 8 News List

Freedom of the press? Or to make lots of cash?

By Weber Lai 賴祥蔚

As a result of its reporting of the Kaohsiung MRT corruption scandal, what started out as a simple issue of TVBS stock ownership has now developed into a question of freedom of the press. Even US officials have expressed hope that Taiwan will continue to protect the freedom of the press.

But is freedom of the press really under attack?

Before answering this, maybe we should ask what freedom of the press really is. Although countries around the world stress the importance of freedom of the press, no one -- including the International Press Organization and Reporters Without Borders -- has proposed a definition of "freedom of the press."

The 17th century writer John Milton, who is generally accepted as the originator of the concept, never mentioned freedom of the press, but rather proposed freedom of speech and print, since the press had not yet taken shape at the time. Although the nascent press had adopted the concept by the 18th century, a complete academic field pertaining to the freedom of the press has yet to be established.

There are significant shortcomings even in the established "fourth estate" concept. This is the reason why there are so many examples in US judicial affairs that seem to go against the idea of freedom of the press. One obvious example is the current controversy surrounding the New York Times reporter Judith Miller.

Although freedom of the press can't be clearly defined, a majority of people know that "the government should not interfere with the press." This idea is grounded in 17th century liberalism. The dictatorial rule at the time meant that private groups were relatively weak, and that was the reason why academics advocated distancing the press from government and moving toward markets in order to avoid stifling the growth of a civil society.

Today, however, media markets are highly developed and many companies have developed into huge monsters. Domestically and internationally, big corporations lead the way. In this environment, "freedom of the press" often means freedom for the media-owning minority. With profit-making as the guiding light for the media industry, it becomes difficult to avoid reliance on sensationalism in the quest for viewers and readers. Freedom of the press becomes freedom for a minority to go to any lengths to make money.

When parents support anti-TV activities because they worry about "media pollution," we cannot help but ask who this market-led freedom is for, what its significance is to civic and social development, and whether freedom of the press in this country really is under attack.

Maybe freedom of the press doesn't exist in Taiwan. These are all questions that society at large should consider.

Freedom of the press does not mean that the state cannot oversee the media. Why else would there be a need to establish a national communications commission? The state must not interfere arbitrarily with the press, nor can political forces, including the opposition, interfere in their own interests.

As Taiwan has joined the WTO, the state should guarantee that domestic media outlets are not taken over by international forces to avoid losing a platform for expressing local public opinion and disseminating cultural values. At the same time, the state must finance research into the freedoms of speech and the press to let humanism replace raw capitalism and initiate the reconstruction of media order so that everyone can enjoy these rights.

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