The media environment in Taiwan is in a state of crisis, one that did not fully capture the public’s imagination until someone from deep inside said he’d had enough and resigned.
US-based Freedom House may have called it “one of the freest in Asia,” but Taiwanese media are under severe pressure and many indicators are pointing in the wrong direction. The signs were there, but it took reporter Huang Je-bing’s (黃哲斌) resignation from the China Times on Dec. 12, after 16 years of service, to draw attention to the severity of the problem and prompt fellow journalists into action.
The source of Huang’s discontent was the growing practice of government product placement in the media to promote its policies, which in effect constitutes the masquerading of propaganda as news.
The potential for abuse is self-evident, especially when we put it in the context of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration’s friendly attitude toward one of Asia’s worst offenders in terms of media freedom: China.
Though the practice has already been characterized as “rampant,” it can only intensify as the Ma government tries to sell more of its controversial cross-strait policies (as they are bound to emerge) to an increasingly skeptical Taiwanese audience.
Beyond Huang’s complaints are other equally worrying trends, all of which appear to be directly or indirectly related to Ma’s policy of engaging Beijing. Some media conglomerates with business interests in China, for example, have been good students of Beijing and are now applying the same kind of self--censorship that makes reporters’ lives there so difficult. Furthermore, unsubtle directives to state-owned media to tone down criticism of Ma’s administration added to growing evidence that political reporting is being discouraged to make room for business news, should give us pause (a quick glance at a Singaporean newspaper should be sufficient to highlight the shortcomings of politically sanitized publications operating in a “soft authoritarian” environment).
It gets worse. Laws that have been implemented or are being considered, such as the Computer-Processed Personal Data Protection Act (電腦處理個人資料保護法) and amendments to the Children and Youth Welfare Act (兒童及少年福利法), will make it increasingly difficult for reporters to access critical information on individuals or, for example, to describe scenes of violence. The first gives government agencies arbitrary authority to decide what kind of information can be released in “the public interest,” while the latter, though meant to protect children, can also unduly embellish reality and prevent key information from being made public.
In and of themselves, such measures could have a beneficial effect on society, but in the wrong hands, they could quickly turn into instruments of repression, just as nuclear energy can be used to provide electricity or annihilate cities.
All of this is occurring under the shadow of calls by senior Chinese officials for greater media cooperation across the Taiwan Strait, which, because of Beijing’s unyielding stance on freedom of expression, can only have a corrupting, if not chilling, effect on the media this side of the strait.
Before it’s too late, let us hope that more whistleblowers like Huang, people with integrity and a sense of civic responsibility — not just in the media, but also in academia and government — will sound the alarm. Reporters are not being rounded up or attacked like in Russia or China, but the muzzling effect, though subtle, exists nonetheless and is inexorably chipping away at citizens’ right to unfiltered and unaltered information.