Tue, Dec 28, 2010 - Page 8 News List

A free press is essential to promote democracy

By Lu I-ming 呂一銘

President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has had a grip on “total power” for two-and-a-half years. He has used this time to amend many laws, using them as effective weapons to suppress enemies and control the media without the need for further action.

Relying on what is popularly called the “big mouth clause” in the draft political appointee act, for example, he can dismiss people from their post without having to give reasons.

He may well respect the independence of the judiciary, but he can also promulgate a judges’ act or set up an anti-corruption office and have people do things “in accordance with the law” on his behalf. For example, shortly after Judge Chou Chan-chun (周占春) declared former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) innocent of the charges against him in connection with the second financial reform, prosecutors charged him with leaking information about witnesses. He has even more cards up his sleeve for dealing with media outlets that don’t toe the line — revoking ERA TV’s licence is just one case — setting an example for others.

The Computer-Processed Personal Data Protection Act (電腦處理個人資料保護法), the Measure Governing the Rating Systems of Publications and Pre-recorded Video Programs (出版品及錄影節目帶分級辦法) — a Publishing Act in disguise — the Regulations for the Rating of Internet Content (電腦網路內容分級處理辦法) and the Regulations for the Rating of TV Content (電視節目分級處理辦法), as well as Article 235 of the Criminal Code concerning the violation of social decency and the Children and Youth Welfare Act (兒童及少年福利法), can all be used against disobedient media outlets, or to block licence applications, as in the case of the Apple Daily and Next Media.

The National Communications Commission (NCC) has its own weapons as detailed in the Broadcasting and Television Act (廣播電視法) and the Satellite Broadcasting Act (衛星廣播電視法), which allow it to force programs off the air.

This is all done within the law, the best example being Ma’s assertion that judicial independence is above what the public wants or finds acceptable, just before he himself made remarks about the Judge’s Law (法官法).

Following the NCC’s recent decision, Ma once again said that the president should not interfere with the NCC as it is an independent institution and that it should be allowed to carry out its duties.

Anyone familiar with officialdom in Taiwan knows of the unspoken rule that you can legislate until the cows come home, but in the end it’s where the power lies that counts. In other words, not one person in officialdom is unaware of the importance of toadying to their superiors and, even better, trying to second-guess the boss. There will be no improvements in the civil service until the dictatorial bent of the powers-that-be recedes. All the talk of laws and reform are just that, talk.

In 2008, Ma signed a pledge opposing embedded marketing of a political nature, but since then the government has continued to use taxpayers’ money for this purpose. According to ratings published late last year by AC Nielsen, advertising for the top 50 government agencies topped NT$1.24 billion (US$42 million), and the combined advertising and PR budget for the Mainland Affairs Council (陸委會) was as high as NT$180 million. These attempts to strip the fourth estate of its right of supervision and oversight threatens to destroy the core value of news reporting. This attack on the freedom of the press could force Taiwan even further down international ratings. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, compiled by the UK’s Economist magazine, has even returned Taiwan to the “flawed democracy” category.

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