Wed, Nov 09, 2005 - Page 8 News List

Freedom of the press should not trump all

By Cheng Tzu-leong 鄭自隆

Much discussion about the recent TVBS controversy has ignored the distinctions between media values, freedom of the press, politics and the law.

The TVBS storm started with the revelation of a photograph. It is the duty of the media to reveal misconduct and this attempt at doing so should be applauded. The photograph alone, however, is not enough to prove conclusively any misconduct by the people shown.

Guests on TV shows have gone too far in drawing conclusions concerning who is implicated. On such occasions, the media should act as gatekeepers and work to offer a balanced picture, in order to maintain their neutrality. They should also strive to maintain their role as observers instead of goading participants or jumping in to stir things up.

An opinion voiced by a guest on a TV show falls within the scope of freedom of speech. But when that information is disseminated by a media outlet it becomes protected by the freedom of the press. We all enjoy freedom of speech, but only those privileged groups who have the power to use the media are protected by freedom of the press. They often operate media outlets and hold high social positions. As a result, placing press freedom before all else simply becomes protection of media hegemony.

Furthermore, the Broadcasting and Television Law (廣播電視法) stipulates that foreign investors may not own more than 50 percent of stock in media outlets. It doesn't make sense to let media representing foreign political forces supervise the government. Although it may be politically motivated, we should support the Government Information Office (GIO) in its investigations of TVBS' capital structure, since it is acting in accordance with the law.

It is inappropriate for TVBS to say that such an investigation cannot be carried out since the broadcasting license has already been issued. Intervention is possible whenever illegal actions are discovered. After all, a drug addict cannot say that, "I've been taking drugs for years. You didn't investigate me before, so you cannot investigate me now."

TVBS also says that its license can only be withdrawn following the establishment of the national communications commission. Until the commission is established, however, the GIO remains the agency in charge. Not taking action would be tantamount to dereliction of duty.

The question of whether or not TVBS has broken the law should be determined by the authorities. In future, there will also be other ways to obtain judicial remedy. Opposition leaders and legislators join the calls against the GIO because they smell blood. Calls for street protests and recalling the president if TVBS' license is cancelled is simply a matter of letting political interests take precedence over the law.

In the same way, President Chen Shui-bian's (陳水扁) statement that no media outlet will be closed during his tenure, though based on political expediency, also shows disregard for the law. The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) closed down innumerable newspapers and magazines during its time in power. If we dislike such behavior, then both the opposition and the government should stay out of the matter and let the judiciary handle it.

The government must not suppress the media. That would mark a return to authoritarian politics. For their part, politicians and the media must not set a bad example by letting their disregard for the law take precedence over the law itself.

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