During media literacy lectures, I put the following question to my students: Do you think, simply by your telling me which TV channel is on at 9pm in your household, I would be able to guess whether you voted for then-presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) or Eric Chu (朱立倫) of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in the 2016 presidential election?
The students’ response is invariably to grin, then nod feverishly and concede that, indeed, I would.
This is, of course, quite dismaying, as it raises two very important points. First, media outlets in Taiwan have their own standpoints, especially with regard to political issues, and they always present one-sided viewpoints and ideas, essentially indoctrinating their audience.
The second is that the partisan nature of the overall media environment has, for all intents and purposes, already split Taiwan into two countries. The question is: Is there anything to be done about the parlous situation?
The partisan mire that Taiwanese media are trapped in can only be cured by an objective, diverse public broadcasting system.
I have had two stints in a supervisory role at the Public Television Service (PTS) and understand all too well how the public’s suspicions of a public media system derive from the performance of PTS over the past 20 years. It is difficult for many to believe that the system can be trusted to be objective and independent.
However, this in itself should not be a reason to oppose the idea of a public media system. For example, Taiwan’s democratic system has faced serious challenges over the past few years, but not many would propose that the nation return to the time of authoritarian rule.
Given the less-than-ideal performance of PTS, then, it might be better for people to knuckle down and think about how it can be improved so that it can meet the public’s expectations, rather than just give up on it.
It is with this end in mind that the Ministry of Culture has proposed amendments to the Public Television Act (公共電視法) and the creation of a public media act. This move is to be applauded.
Judging by the draft public media act, the creation of a public media foundation should be beneficial to the domestic content provision industry, nurturing the overall broadcasting environment.
The legislation would also promote broadcasting overseas, fostering international cooperation and exchanges, as well as exporting Taiwanese cultural content, and see the creation of more ethnic channels, promoting the development of more diverse, multicultural content and requiring channels specializing in specific ethnic groups.
All of these are changes that the public has wanted to see and one can only hope that they will, in fact, be realized through the passage of this bill.
The most significant change that will come with the change of the Public Television Act to a public media law will be the merger of Radio Taiwan International (RTI) and the Central News Agency (CNA) within two years of its passage, under articles 54 and 55.
This will see the merger of three institutions — RTI, CNA and PTS — putting the more than 1,000 employees of the institutions within one organization.
In the past, CNA was repurposed from being the communications branch of a political party to a so-called “national news agency,” although it continued to play the role of a government mouthpiece.
For example, when the KMT was in government, CNA was criticized for broadcasting KMT propaganda, and since the DPP has been in power, the agency has been criticized for doing the same for the DPP. Throughout, doubt has been cast over its fairness and objectivity.
The root cause of the problem is that being a government news agency, as opposed to national or public news agency, is in CNA’s very DNA. Whichever party is in power can pick the agency’s senior management, including the chairman, board members and director.
Expecting an organization with this kind of management structure to be fair and objective is asking a lot, as the senior management is appointed by the governing party.
Consequently, it makes sense to amend the Public Television Act to make CNA truly “national,” transforming it into an objective, independent national news agency.
As with CNA, so with RTI: Too long has it masqueraded as something it is not. That said, the organizational changes to be made to RTI might need further consultation.
Your average Taiwanese is probably not all that familiar with RTI, as its responsibility used to be to broadcast overseas — including to China — and Taiwanese listeners had no access to it. Because it did not have a domestic audience in Taiwan, Taiwanese have not been all that aware of its existence.
However, more recently, it has assumed a higher profile among Taiwanese, due to the increased international broadcasts from other countries, coupled with Taiwan’s reduced diplomatic allies.
Countries have different approaches to whether it is best for the media outlet responsible for international broadcasts to be government or public institutions. For example, the BBC World Service, the British overseas broadcaster that broadcasts in 32 languages over shortwave radio frequencies and the Internet to a weekly audience of 188 million, is run as a public media organization.
Its US counterpart, the Voice of America, which broadcasts in 44 languages, ostensibly falls under an independent organization, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, of the US federal government, but its chief executive is appointed by the US president, and so it is widely regarded as a government institution.
Taking the examples of the US and the UK, we can think about how we could set up an overseas broadcaster and whether such an agency should be conceived of as an independent public media outlet or one under the jurisdiction of the executive branch.
As mentioned, other countries’ overseas broadcasts have become increasingly important in Taiwan. In addition, neighboring nations such as South Korea and Japan, with Arirang TV in the case of South Korea, and in the latter case Japan Broadcasting Corp (NHK) and — from 2016 — the semi-official Wakuwaku Japan channel, have been filling our TV screens with South Korean and Japanese dramas, exporting their national culture and government propaganda.
Why could Taiwan not do this, too?
Unfortunately, the proposed amendments will come too late for Taiwan Macroview Television Service, which started broadcasting in 2000, but closed shop last year, with the budget for this year being transferred by the Overseas Community Affairs Council to PTS.
It is a pity that Taiwan’s outlets responsible for overseas broadcasts have come to this. Perhaps the government could consider merging all the outlets capable of overseas broadcasts into one body. This would not have to come under the Ministry of Culture, although the executive branch would have to be involved in one way or another.
Public media is one possible way in which Taiwan could escape the partisan mire of pan-blue and pan-green politics. In addition to nationalizing of CNA and RTI, which have for too long played the role of government media, the government should also look into strengthening Taiwan’s overseas broadcasting when proposing new public media legislation.
Chen Ping-hung is a professor at National Taiwan Normal University’s Graduate Institute of Mass Communication.
Translated by Paul Cooper
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