Thu, May 07, 2009 - Page 8 News List

The retreat of freedom of the press bodes poorly

By Leon Chuang 莊豐嘉

A few days ago, US-based Freedom House released a global survey entitled Freedom of the Press 2009 in which Taiwan’s press freedom ranking fell by 11 places from last year’s list.

It was no surprise that Taiwan’s ranking dropped, but the size of the fall is much greater than expected and very worrying. More worrying still is the fact that Hong Kong has been relegated from the “free” category to “partly free.”

The lesson is that if Taiwan’s media cannot resist penetration by China, Taiwan will before long go the same way as Hong Kong.

President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and his government should bear full responsibility for this black mark on the record of their first year in office.

Unfortunately, all of them — from Ma to the Government Information Office — have brushed it off, saying rather unconvincingly that they would look into the matter.

Their reaction is evidence of a guilty conscience. Regrettably, however, there is no sign that they intend to take meaningful steps to uphold freedom of the press.

The main rationale given for why Taiwan’s global rating fell to No. 43 in the report is that the media have been subjected to government pressure, while journalists have been victims of violence or threats, mostly political in nature.

For example, FTV reporter Tsai Meng-yu (蔡孟育) needed hospital treatment after being beaten by riot police while covering protests against visiting Chinese envoy Chen Yunlin (陳雲林) last November.

The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government has wantonly and crudely interfered in public broadcasting. The KMT-dominated legislature froze the budget of the Public Television Service (PTS) for a full year as the party’s lawmakers drafted legislation subjecting the station’s budget to item-by-item examination and approval.

These moves were clearly aimed at controlling the content of PTS news. In a healthy democracy, such interference would be unthinkable. But what commitment has Ma’s government made to upholding press freedom?

During his presidential election campaign, Ma signed his name to a declaration launched by the Association of Taiwan Journalists targeting product placement in news programs. The reality today, however, is that the government itself employs many resources to place its own propaganda in news reports. What happened to Ma’s pledges?

From Taiwan’s point of view, however, the most worrying aspect of this year’s Freedom House report is the fact that for the first time since it was returned to China in 1997, Hong Kong has been demoted from the “free” category to “partly free.”

The quantitative and qualitative changes that this formerly free territory have undergone are living proof of the threat a dictatorial regime poses to freedom of the press.

Press freedom in Taiwan today is threatened not only by political pressure arising from the KMT’s monopoly on power, but also by the infiltration of Chinese influence through commercial activities.

Although this latest report still places Taiwan in the “free” category, we have no reason to be complacent. If the Ma administration continues to open the door to Chinese-owned media, China’s dictators will be able to dig their claws deep into the weakened body of the Taiwanese media industry.

When news media in Taiwan no longer dare to report critically on China, the retreat in freedom of expression that we are witnessing will become a calamity.

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