Many areas of Taiwanese society and politics are in need of attention. In the two years since President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) took office, his administration’s performance in many fields — be it in political, judicial or educational reform, economic regeneration, environmental conservation, or responding to natural disasters — has been singularly unimpressive. However, one thing this administration is very keen on is criticizing and restricting the media, whose role it is to monitor the government.
The Ma administration tried to limit the media using legislation such as the Computer-Processed Personal Data Protection Act (個人資料保護法) and the Children and Youth Welfare Act (兒童及少年福利法), which were reviewed over the past few days and are to be revised to offer better protection of children. Indeed, the administration made such blatant attempts at “embedded marketing” that the National Press Council (NPC) felt compelled to ask the government to refrain from such practices. Even the US-based non-profit watchdog Freedom House says that Taiwan’s government is guilty of interfering with both the Central News Agency and the Public Television Service.
A Taiwanese company with large investments in China bought out a major Chinese-language newspaper in Taiwan, calling the independence of its editorial policy into question. These factors have caused Taiwan’s press freedom ranking, as assessed by Freedom House, to decline for the past two years running. In other words, the government has a bad case of what the eminent US political scientist Samuel Huntington referred to as “authoritarian nostalgia.”
The government seems to go along with the notion of -“democracy with Chinese characteristics,” as promoted by the Chinese government, which believes that democracy is a Western concept and cannot be adopted wholesale. All this means is that freedom of the press and freedom of speech in Taiwan are now threatened more than at any time since the Martial Law era ended.
The press in Taiwan is being asked to curtail its reporting: To clean it up, take a cautious approach, correct it, make constructive suggestions and be more positive in its handling of issues. This is no different from how things were back in my day as editor of the official Taiwan Shin Sheng Daily News. However, times are different now, we have moved on. Why are leaders and officials in the 21st century still taking such an authoritarian stance? It really is quite outrageous.
I remember when I was working for the United Daily News. Back then, we competed with the Credit News, precursor to the China Times, in our coverage of social news stories, which could at times be quite sensationalistic.
The presidents at the time, Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and his son and successor Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國), also wanted to clean up the media. They never intervened through legal channels, using legislation such as the two laws mentioned above. At best they chose to exploit the party political machine, using civic media groups such as the NPC or the National Press Institute to request “self-regulation.”
If the authorities felt there was an element of bias or prejudice in a media report or opinion piece, they would hold a “seminar” or “conference.” Nowadays, the government uses legal means to restrict the press, as if a more “civilized” system has moral standards that lend it legitimacy or acting in a seemingly reasonable way cannot possibly be considered restricting or clamping down on press freedoms, when there is no difference between the two.
The point is that things happen. News is by its very nature unpredictable, there is no way to classify it. If it were any different, it would not be news.
The main reason for the public’s negative perception of news media these days is the way news reports are written, processed and presented. This is what reporters learn in their media courses at school, or on the job. It is a matter of professional technique, rather than something that needs to be guided and corrected by law. If reporters and editors are continuously scrutinized and held to account at every turn, they will become intimidated and their journalism suppressed. That is a route we should not go down.
Media organizations worldwide practice self-regulation and are also constrained by innumerable laws and regulations. In most cases, the authorities guide the media and persuade them to abide by the rules. Upholding fairness and justice and protecting children, teenagers and the disadvantaged goes without saying. In other words, the key point is to find a suitable way to ensure both the media’s right to report and the public’s right to know. If laws were used to regulate how news was reported — whether it involves crime, violence, bloodshed, sexual or obscene content, either visual or textual — it would make the media’s job impossible, especially given the pressure of deadlines.
That would be an absurd situation — especially if the media ended up reporting nothing for fear of falling afoul of the law. Perhaps it would be a good idea to invite media organizations to present their opinions about this at a public hearing or seminar.
Government authorities need to get away from a mentality that believes the media has to be regulated and be more democratic about it. News reports should not be full of what media studies calls “selective perception” that excludes dissenting opinion. Besides, Taiwan has no lack of laws regulating the media as it is, in addition to social pressures. The real task should be to ensure greater freedom of news reporting.
If more legislation is used to restrict the media, or civic groups are used as a mechanism to scrutinize and debate media reports, that would not comply at all with democratic practice. It would be better to have academia, civic groups, official departments and media experts get together to work out ways for news media to regulate themselves. It could be something like the system of media ombudsmen that exists in advanced countries. What we can’t have is officialdom stifling the media for fear of something occasionally going awry. That would badly damage Taiwan’s democracy, as well as our image as a country that enjoys freedom of the press.
Lu I-ming is the former publisher and president of Taiwan Shin Sheng Daily News.
TRANSLATED BY PAUL COOPER AND JULIAN CLEGG
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