Sun, Jan 02, 2011 - Page 8 News List

Restoring faith in media balance

By Lu I-ming 呂一銘

During its more than two years in office, the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has used taxpayers’ money to buy space or time in the media in an attempt to create illusions about its policy achievements, while at the same time clamping down on media that express opinions at variance with its own. For example, the government refused for a long time to grant a broadcast licence to Next TV and now the National Communications Commission (NCC) has disciplined the ERA communications group by revoking the broadcasting licence of its variety TV channel. When it comes to the government’s own embedded marketing, however, the NCC does nothing.

These blatant moves to clamp down on certain media outlets have produced a climate of intimidation throughout the media sector. Washington-based watchdog group Freedom House has lowered its ranking for press freedom in Taiwan for two years in a row, specifying Taiwanese media’s acceptance of embedded marketing by the government as one of the main reasons. The UK-based Economist Intelligence Unit went so far as to reclassify Taiwan as a “flawed democracy.”

Who allowed the NCC’s power to reach this unimaginable level? Governing and opposition party politicians must bear some of the blame for letting this happen, as must society as a whole. While political parties all want control over the media, society has failed to play its role of pressuring and monitoring government bodies, thus allowing the NCC to act in this unbridled fashion. Over the years there have been many calls and campaigns for the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), the government and the military to pull out of the media, but it seems the media has once again become a tool in the hands of political parties — all the more so now that Ma has control of all branches of government. In July, the legislature’s Organic Laws and Statutes Bureau published a report on embedded marketing, questioning whether the Ma administration was guilty of undermining the media’s role and responsibilities as the fourth estate.

Advanced democratic countries all have rules about embedded marketing — or policy placement — by the government. For example, the US government needs to get approval from Congress before it can allocate a budget for public information. Britain’s regulations are particularly strict, allowing the government to disseminate information only of a public service nature and forbidding it from using the media for other kinds of propaganda. EU regulations are very strict too, forbidding news and current affairs programs from accepting sponsorship or embedded marketing. There are many such examples and we would do well to learn from the experience of these other countries.

Although the NCC is a product of compromise between Taiwan’s rival pan-blue and pan-green political forces, the people running it have forgotten that they are supposed to play an impartial role and they have abandoned their duty to uphold the core values of the media.

By wielding various laws, including the three broadcasting acts, the Computer-Processed Personal Data Protection Act (個人資料保護法), the Children and Youth Welfare Act (兒童及少年福利法) and others, NCC bureaucrats have the power to approve or reject licence applications, which means life or death for media outlets, and to set the amount of administrative fines. Regulations governing termination of broadcasting rights as a penalty under the Radio and Television Act (廣播電視法) and Satellite Broadcasting Act (衛星廣播電視法) state that stations that have been instructed three times to abide by the rules, but fail to do so, can be ordered to stop broadcasting.

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