On the eve of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, the US-based Freedom House released its annual survey of media freedom around the world. The report -- Freedom of the Press 2007 -- said that Taiwan enjoys the freest media environment in East Asia because of its firm support for an independent judiciary and economic freedom, as well as the government's respect for the freedom of speech as protected in the Constitution.
The survey showed that even though press freedom around the world as a whole declined last year, Taiwan wasn't affected by the trend. Indeed, Taiwan moved up from its 35th ranking last year to 33rd this year, joining other countries such as Finland, Germany and the US in the "free press" category. In Asia, Taiwan overtook Japan as the nation with the freest press.
As in the past, this news was barely covered by the local media. One reason may be that people often take freedom and democracy for granted. Some of this neglect also stems from ideological bias in the local media.
Distorted concepts of national identity often lead the media to portray Taiwan in decline and China on the rise. But the Chinese media are not free, as the Freedom House report says, and not even the best makeover would be able to cover up this fact. The report ranked China 181st in the world, saying Chinese officials had stepped up efforts to persecute the media and reporters over the past year.
Taiwanese media freedom has become a widely accepted fact. The more important question is what benefits or drawbacks free media can bring to the world of journalism and local society. The media's basic function is to provide accurate and balanced information to enable the public to make rational decisions. As such, independent and responsible media organizations are vital to democratic societies.
The truth, however, is that local media is biased.
There is a never-ending stream of erroneous reports, with no mechanism in place to fix these errors. And with media interference in politics growing every day, ideological and political persuasion often influences reporting.
News is being fabricated, and even opinion polls, which are supposed to faithfully reflect public opinion, often deviate from the truth. Talk shows deviate from rational debate, devolving into battlegrounds for factional fighting.
Not only does this kind of situation fail to strengthen democracy and promote public welfare, but it is also harmful to the news world itself.
Reporters are no longer respected, and many journalism professors are ashamed to reveal their identities.
The only work that seems to interest talented young people is being an anchor. What's more, an international survey last year showed that local media had a trust rating of only 1 percent.
The lifting of reporting restrictions in 1988 was a critical turning point in opening up the local media. However, 20 years of liberalization have only succeeded in turning the local media from a meek poodle under an authoritarian regime into a mad dog of the democratic era, as the Los Angeles Times once described media.
This kind of transformation has made it difficult for media workers to get more respect and honor. Taiwanese media -- the freest in Asia -- are in need of self-reflection.
But if the media meet the challenge, they can establish new milestones on the road to developing press freedom and a healthy democracy.