According to US-based Freedom House’s report this year on freedom of the press, Taiwan scored its lowest ranking since 2002, continuing a slide that began in 2008. Taiwan dropped 16 places in the global ranking and went from being the freest media in Asia to second place.
The report cited problems such as the debate over the chairpersonship of the Taiwan Public Television Service (PTS), government-funded embedded advertising, increasing frequency of flattering reports about the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and likewise with negative reports about the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). These remarks were very similar to what the US Department of State said in its Human Rights Report last year and they all have an impact on the image of Taiwanese democracy and freedom.
Since the KMT took power in 2008, the international community has been paying a lot of attention to Taiwan’s press freedom. The 2008 Human Rights Report cited the International Federation of Journalists, which issued a report on Oct. 9, 2008, in which they accused the government of interfering with the media. They cited the inappropriate appointment of staff and directors at PTS, the Central News Agency and Radio Taiwan International. While the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) denied these allegations, in November that year, the federation and Reporters Without Borders criticized a decision passed by the Legislative Yuan that demanded that content broadcast by public broadcasting groups first be approved by the Government Information Office. The US’ 2009 Human Rights Report accused the government of conducting inappropriate embedded advertising.
In early January this year, the legislature passed an amendment to a clause in Article 62 of the Budget Act (預算法) that stated that budgets allotted for advocating policy should be clearly listed as advertising, that the names of the authorities or departments responsible for managing or sponsoring such advertising be made public and that such advertisements not be published as embedded advertising. However, academic circles questioned whether this could be implemented.
On April 13, DPP Legislator Huang Wei-cher (黃偉哲) asked Minister of Economic Affairs Shih Yen-shiang (施顏祥) about this during a question-and-answer session in the legislature, saying that “outsourced advertising,” “features,” “advertisements” and “special reports” were all in breach of regulations and demanded that “the government organizations responsible for the publication of such reports be clearly listed and that such reports be listed as paid advertising” in accordance with the law.
The Alliance to Oppose Government News Buying has also announced that it would be monitoring such issues more closely.
News is news and advertising is advertising, and the two should never be confused. This is a norm media outlets worldwide follow. In Taiwan, however, many media outlets happily accept the government’s embedded advertising and even think of all sorts of ways of colluding with the government in order to get more such advertising.
In the process of doing so, they sacrifice the public good that should be provided by news and press freedom. Protecting press freedom represents protection of freedom of expression, a core democratic value. This core value should not be allowed to be dragged down to the absurd level where the one that should be monitored — the government — suppresses the one that should be doing the monitoring — the media — regardless of whether they do it by bribing the media or using their power to achieve this end.