Recently there have been a lot of news stories about incidents and crimes in which children and young people were the victims, including abandonment, maltreatment, prostitution, injury and murder. These stories are unsettling.
Apart from truthfully reporting the news -- like what happened, who was involved and where it happened -- journalists reporting news items that involve minors should make sure they don't harm the victim any further. Newspapers often do not disclose the names of minors or their families , but unfortunately, television news channels often broadcast footage of the family of a minor or the place where they live, thus indirectly exposing the minor's identity.
The Children and Juveniles' Welfare Law (兒童及少年福利法) that came into effect in 2003 states that when minors are involved in abnormal circumstances, such as abandonment, news media are not to report the name of minors or information that can lead to the disclosure of their identity. The reason is very simple -- news coverage should not harm the physical and emotional development of young victims.
This law can hardly be seen as restrictive to the freedom of the press. Rather, it is laying down in law the responsibility the media has towards society.
The main objective of the law is to protect minors from the harmful influence of unhealthy media content in two ways. The first is to protect the development of a minor's personality from being harmed by negative media exposure. The second is to protect minors from being exposed to unhealthy media content.
Some television news programs seem to believe the law only means they have to avoid showing the faces of minors. But what the law says is that they are not allowed to broadcast any information that could lead to the minor being identified. This includes the broadcast of photographs or film footage of the child, voice recordings, his or her address, names of friends and relatives or the school at which they study.
Directly exposing the faces of minors and their relatives is of course not appropriate. It's also unacceptable if in a case of abuse the identity of the abuser is reported, as this might lead to viewers being able to make out the identity of the abused.
Whether news media act as ambassadors of benevolence and expose the identity of minors, or act as ambassadors of righteousness and show the faces of abusers, both can reveal the identities of the people involved in the case, and subsequently cause them more harm.
But what happens when news media go against these rules? Newspapers are regulated by local governments, while television stations were regulated by the Government Information Office, until this role was transferred to the National Communications Commission (NCC) last year.
After the Children and Juveniles' Welfare Law was passed, the act was implemented in very different ways by central and local governments. On the local level, the committee for the investigation of the violation of media rules of the Taipei City Government meted out punishments in six cases in 2004, nine cases in 2005 and in another six last year. There were a total of 21 cases in three years. The central government on the other hand has so far not once investigated a television news channel for violating this rule.
There are two possible explanations for this. One is that compared with newspapers and other print media, television stations are especially law-abiding and never break the rules. Another explanation is that compared with local governments, the central government is more relaxed in its interpretation of the law, or that it is not really making an effort to enforce it. But it is of course unsatisfactory when the same law is enforced using different standards.