Media reform needs dose of realism

By Howard Shyr石世豪  / 

Mon, Aug 23, 2004 - Page 8

In a nation where all public sectors have been thoroughly politicized, citizens always tend to see so-called "independent" commissions as cure-alls. The same is true when it comes to the media reform issue, which the government and opposition have been arguing over bitterly.

Ever since the National Communications Commission (NCC) was given its name, there have been those who have been dissatisfied with the performance of the institutions currently in charge of broadcasting and telecommunications. In the commission, they have found an outlet for their unrealistic imaginations. They include people with ulterior motives, who deliberately use the NCC as an excuse to oppose reform.

It seems that substantive reform is unnecessary, so long as we emulate the US and come up with a Taiwanese version of the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Then, the thinking goes, all the evils absent in the US but so apparent here -- such as party-government-army unity and monopoly, will instantly disappear from Taiwan. At the very least, this will change the direction of public opinion, and move political parties' focus away from essential reform, leaving us to scrape along and postpone the changes we are waiting for.

I deeply believe that the majority of Taiwanese have been eagerly looking forward to the establishment of the NCC. Although the belief that a political miracle will happen all by itself is a bit naive, it is helpful for changing the status quo. However, the actions of a minority of irresponsible media and politicians with ulterior motives bring unrealistic and empty hopes. That in turn leads to a wait-and-see attitude, which restricts the current reform consensus that has been so hard to achieve.

In fact, if closely scrutinized, the high hopes for the future operations of the NCC are nothing but a mirage -- and the resulting disappointment and complaints will deepen the public's apathy towards politics. We must clearly recognize the feasibility and limitations of the various proposals in order to be able to avoid booty-sharing between political parties and other unreasonable demands that would destroy the functions that the NCC should possess.

First of all, the NCC will be responsible for the telecommunications, broadcasting and information sectors, and its status will be that of a second-level ministerial commission. Organizationally, however, it will not fall under the jurisdiction of the Executive Yuan, which makes it unique. Apart from legally stipulated supervisory and control powers, the NCC will therefore lack both the convenient mutual assistance that comes from the administrative unity of ministries and commissions, and the mutual support and assistance between members of the Cabinet team.

Second, the NCC's "independent" status will not be maintained through a balance between different political parties. Rather, the commission -- which will be made up of experts -- will transcend party politics through depoliticized organizational design and thorough controls and principles separating management from operations. It will thereby escape the influence of the success or failure of individual operators, and focus on technology, market and efficiency policies. Excessive political expectations and too many political missions will only cause the NCC to become engulfed in party struggles which will consume the commission's credibility.

Third, NCC members will come from relevant specialized fields, with technical members mainly coming from the Directorate General of Communications (電信總局) and the Department of Posts and Telecommunications (郵電司) under the Ministry of Transportation and Communications. The background of members is thus clearly delineated -- they will neither be a team of superheros made up of people with superhuman skills and flawless moral character, nor will they make up a dream team of stars. Given the allocation of personnel, a limited budget, organizational mergers, adjustments to responsibilities and a thousand other things that require attention, it is already a difficult enough task to build orderly market competition for the telecommunications, broadcasting and information sectors. Where would the NCC find the strength to also clean up the mess remaining from the martial law system?

Finally, and most importantly, the the social and economic conditions and political motivation to initiate media reform will dissipate if we relax. The FCC is basically the protector of the game rules for a "normal" market in a "normal" country. By comparison, the country's broadcasting sector has lived through a decades-long abnormal situation where it has been monopolized by party and state, and where the state apparatus has been treated as private property.

After the transition of power four years ago, the broadcasting industry was for the first time subjected to a comprehensive inspection. Today, we have reached the moment when President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) is about to realize his campaign promise of "persistent reform." He'll do this by making terrestrial television stations government-owned and privately managed, pushing political parties out of the media and putting the airwaves in better order. He will complete all these reforms in one fell swoop, thereby helping the NCC evade political problems. All that then remains will be an imaginary "normal" country with a "normal" vision of the confluence of telecommunications and the mass media. But in the end, it will all be but a beautiful dream.

Howard Shyr is an executive member of the Campaign for Media Reform.

Translated by Perry Svensson