Speaking before the legislature’s Transportation Committee a few days ago, National Communications Commission (NCC) Chairperson Bonnie Peng (彭芸) said the commission had not changed its stance that indirect investment in media outlets by political parties, the government and the military should not exceed 10 percent.
Even as she was saying this, however, a Ministry of Transportation and Communications official was telling reporters the ministry was thinking of allowing the three groups to directly own up to 50 percent of media outlets, or even lifting the restriction altogether.
A reporter quoted the ministry official as saying: “To my understanding, restrictions on such investment don’t exist in broadcasting regulations anywhere else in the world, and therefore I would strongly suggest a wholesale lifting of the ban.”
This is a strange thing for a ministry official to say. Let us hope that the reporter in question was mistaken and misquoted the official.
If this wasn’t the case, our reaction might go along the lines of: “If you don’t know what you’re talking about, please keep your mouth shut!” We would also ask Premier Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) to rein in these know-it-all officials and keep them from spouting nonsense about things they haven’t the first clue about.
Let’s look at the official’s argument: Since there are no specific regulations restricting government investment in the media in other countries, we should just throw out all the relevant clauses in our legislation in this country.
What kind of twisted logic is that? Does this official have any idea what it means to live in a democracy?
Permit me, if you will, to make an analogy, at the risk of seeming a little facetious. What if we always did things according to whether there were explicit examples to be found abroad?
Following this logic, which country specifically requires children to look after their parents?
There aren’t any. So, does that mean it’s all right for kids to go around disobeying their parents?
The reason there are no explicit rules saying you have to do as you’re told is that respect for one’s parents is a universal value that does not need to be explicitly stipulated in so many laws or regulations. In the same way, there is no place in democratic politics for individual parties or the military to force their point of view on the media: This is a fundamental value.
The broadcast media constitutes the fourth estate, which plays a supervisory role over the different branches of government — especially the executive, legislature and the judiciary. What would be the sense in having any one of the three branches investing in the very entity that is meant to keep them in check? How would the fourth estate be able to fulfill its role of monitoring these three branches of government?
The official who made these comments betrays a serious deficiency in his or her capacity for logical thought.
Generally speaking, I’m not personally enamored with the NCC’s current approach of allowing indirect investment. I haven’t made my objections public because of practical considerations, but my silence on this issue has been a grudging one. I would rather the NCC completely ban investment in the media by these parties out of principle.
However, I could accept an easing if, for one, any potential investors from these three groups were required to apply to the commission if they intend to purchase any shares in media outlets.
The NCC would then convene a number of tripartite meetings and public hearings with the parties concerned, civic groups and academics. Should the investment be approved, the commission would be able to set the process in motion.
I say this for three basic reasons:
First, having political or military influence over the media in a democratic society is not something to be taken lightly, and so it’s important to have transparency and accountability.
Second, there should be some form of public monitoring of how administrative bodies approve such investment to make sure the government has no way of using its influence to manipulate the media.
Finally, civic groups ought to have some say in the major national decisions such as this, and so the NCC has the duty to provide them with a voice in these matters.
I find it difficult to express just how astonished I was to read the abovementioned quote by the ministry official and I truly hope it is simply a case of misreporting in the media.
I also hope the official will stand up and clarify the error in the reporting, or at least accept that he or she overstepped the mark, and undertake to avoid shooting off their mouth about this issue ever again.
Chen Ping-hung is a professor at National Taiwan Normal University’s graduate institute of mass communication.
TRANSLATED BY PAUL COOPER
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