Freedom of the press is one of a list of achievements Taiwan has to show for its journey down a long and difficult road to democracy. The improvement made in this field has been recognized in recent years by international organizations, including Reporters Without Borders in its annual Worldwide Press Freedom Index and Freedom House in its annual report on media freedom.
In the last two years, Taiwan was ranked by Freedom House as Asia’s freest media environment. The report cited the government’s respect for the independence of the judiciary and the freedoms of speech and the media enshrined in the Constitution.
“Taiwanese media are vigorous and lively,” the report said, “regularly criticizing government policy and top officials.”
Less than five months after the transfer of power, however, the government has come under fire from the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).
In a searing statement, the IFJ said it “condemns Taiwan’s apparent interference in state-owned media and urges government authorities to refrain from further acts that could jeopardize editorial independence.”
The condemnation came in the wake of allegations that the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government meddles in the media. Cheng Yu (鄭優), chairman of the state-owned Radio Taiwan International, said last week the government had asked the station not to broadcast reports that were too critical of China.
This allegation was followed by an open letter penned by the Central News Agency (CNA) deputy editor-in-chief, Chuang Feng-chia (莊豐嘉), saying that the agency’s reporters were often asked to drop reports that were deemed critical of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and his administration.
CNA, also state-owned, has in recent years become a key news agency that feeds around-the-clock reports to media outlets and subscribers.
In its early years, CNA was the KMT’s servant. Gradually, however, the organization made the transition from a KMT mouthpiece to a media outlet after then-president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) assigned liberals to head the organization.
In his letter lamenting the loss of partiality in CNA’s reporting, Chuang, who resigned from his post, said: “If one day news reports by CNA were selective, incomplete, or even biased ... wouldn’t it be CNA’s downfall if the day came when people read CNA news with the same skepticism they have for Xinhua news agency?”
Oppression of the media is a sure sign that a nation’s democratic values are in trouble.
The Government Information Office has rebutted the claims of meddling, but the IFJ’s concerns indicate Taiwan’s reputation for press freedom may already have sustained damage.
One of Ma’s countless pledges comes to mind: “We will endeavor to create an environment that is humane, rational and pluralistic ... encourage healthy competition in politics and respect the media’s monitoring of the government and freedom of the press.”
That statement, made during his inaugural speech, may have been little more than an act.
“The government will not stand in the way of social progress, but rather serve as the engine that drives it,” Ma said.
Talk is cheap. Maintaining the nation’s young but proud record on press freedoms, however, is priceless.
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