Although 20 years have passed, people should still remember the institutions that restricted press freedom back in the Martial Law era: The Taiwan Garrison Command, the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) Cultural Affairs Department, the Government Information Office and the entire authoritarian regime that those institutions represented.
Taiwan has seen a major leap forward in freedom of speech and freedom of the press in the past 20 years. Several institutions from the authoritarian era are gone and regulations restricting freedom of expression have been amended. The Publishing Act (出版法) has been abolished, new television and radio stations have opened and Taiwan has been listed as the leading country in East Asia for freedom of the press by US-based Freedom House and Paris-based Reporters Without Borders. However, this does not mean that the nation’s press freedom is unassailable. On the contrary, new threats have surfaced.
When talking about freedom of expression, we must also examine freedom of the press, because free speech can only assert its influence through the media. If the media is monopolized by a single voice while all other information is restricted, legal protection of freedom of expression would be pointless. In such a scenario, freedom of expression means muttering to yourself in your home or complaining to friends and relatives — it is not conducive at all to building a public consensus.
The threat facing freedom of expression today is different from the past threat of externally imposed controls. Today, those controls come from within the media, when it fabricates, distorts, exaggerates or gags certain news and opinions for political, economic and other reasons that have nothing to do with professionalism. This kind of internal problem with freedom of expression is the same regardless of whether the media outlet is pro-unification or pro-independence.
Another growing threat to the nation’s freedom of expression is clearly related to the issue of Taiwanese independence or unification with China. This is because our neighbor has gradually grown stronger and because the KMT has advocated the “one China” policy and leaned toward Beijing since its return to power.
It is today more difficult than before for media outlets with a clear pro-localization position to receive resources or assistance from within the industry. In addition, massive Chinese economic interest groups have in recent years invested in the nation’s domestic media industry and the affected media outlets now overtly express a pro-China stance.
A few days ago, the Chinese government even publicly encouraged their media outlets to open branches in Taiwan. The reasons behind this are very clear.
In addition, the fact that President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) trusted follower and former Taipei deputy mayor King Pu-tsung (金溥聰) heads Next Media’s (壹傳媒集團) new TV station, as well as the public stir caused by the Ma administration placing many of its people in publicly owned media outlets, have prompted concern that domestic media may be seriously imbalanced.
Taiwan’s highly praised freedom of expression did not come easily and only at the expense of great sacrifice. The threats against freedom of expression posed by this serious media imbalance are real and dangerous. We must take the matter seriously and not ignore it.