Over the past year, there have been many moves to push a draft law aimed at protecting the welfare and interests of children and youths. Strong opinions both for and against this law have focused on technical issues related to how news-gathering agencies should appropriately handle reporting crimes. It should be possible to find a balance to avoid media sensationalism that the public finds unacceptable and, given journalistic self-regulation, legislation, market demands and other controls that are already in place, this shouldn’t be very difficult to achieve.
However, taking a look at the details of the draft law, it is worrying to see that it includes articles about what newspapers can print. This is tantamount to bringing the Publishing Act (出版法), which was scrapped years ago, back to life. This would deal a huge blow to Taiwan’s press freedom and its democracy.
The way reports on crimes are handled and presented is an area that should be left to media theory and practice. There is absolutely no need to list such things in a law aimed at protecting the welfare and interests of children and youths. Isn’t such a law an insult to the media and our institutions of higher learning? Are we supposed to believe that the media is essentially bad for our society?
Article 44 of the proposed act says that the print press cannot describe or depict in detail crimes such as drug use or have detailed explanations or pictures of suicide cases. It also says that the print press cannot describe or depict violent acts, print text or pictures that show blood, pornography, obscenities or forced sexual intercourse. Article 90, which deals with violations of article 44, says the publisher of a newspaper depicting content detrimental to the physical or mental well-being of children and youths shall be fined between NT$100,000 and NT$500,000 and that their name or title shall be announced publicly.
The 70-year-old Publishing Act, abolished on Jan. 12, 1999, shows many similarities with the currently proposed act. For example, Article 32 of Chapter 5 of the abolished act stated that publications were not allowed to publish information dealing with those who committed, or instigated others to commit, the crimes of insurrection or treason, interference with public administration, voting or public order, or offenses against religious rituals or sexual morality.
In other words, the regulations on newspapers proposed in the draft and the penalties for those who violate these regulations are not just about “crimes” and “details,” they are also detailed to the point of saying what can and cannot be reported, which essentially makes the act an official, government directed “news gathering guide,” which is absolutely ridiculous.
If we judge things by the standards listed in the draft law following the first review, the detailed media reports on the recent election-eve shooting of a Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) politician Sean Lien (連勝文) were illegal. However, we no longer live in the past and the proposed draft should not be aimed at “purifying” everything that passes before the eyes of our youth. We cannot hide the real world from them. They need to develop a certain amount of “immunity,” that can only come from seeing things as they are, if we want them to be capable of taking part in broader society. We cannot have them living in some virtual world created by adults where everything is rosy.