While everybody’s attention is focused on the emergence of a “media monster” and the threat to the nation’s democracy, other developments behind the scenes are raising equally troubling questions about the government’s commitment to freedom of information.
The dangers of media monopolization and undue influence by China in local media are well-known, and need not be repeated. Rather, the focus should also be on recent moves by the government and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) that reveal the role President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration sees itself playing is that of a regulator of information.
Free-market advocates can say what they want about the virtues of an unchecked economy, but history shows that information — its uses and accessibility — is not a normal commodity, and therefore deserves special protections that can only be ensured through government supervision. It goes without saying that governments will on occasion be tempted to abuse that prerogative by censoring information or erecting barriers to critical information. What is needed is a healthy equilibrium between government regulators, the courts and the media to ensure that information is accessible and used responsibly.
Based on recent moves, there is reason to believe that the government sees things differently.
The first, seemingly innocuous, development is the release of a poll by the Taipei City Government yesterday that evaluated residents’ satisfaction with the city. In an Orwellian twist, the survey only asked respondents to discuss what they liked and skirted questions on what was bad about the metropolis. Explaining the decision, the city government said it sought to focus on the positive aspects of Taipei, which is akin to asking a victim of domestic abuse to focus only on her husband’s skills in the kitchen, while preventing her from mentioning that he beats her regularly. Consciously selecting inconvenient information is the basis of censorship and presents a false picture of reality.
A second worrying incident occurred on Monday, when the legislature passed an initial screening of a draft amendment to the Communicable Disease Control Act (傳染病防治法) that would force media organizations to correct any “false” information they publish on disease prevention measures during an epidemic. While this makes sense on paper, the proposed amendment raises the specter of the government — perhaps in collusion with pharmaceutical companies — having final say on what constitutes “true” or “false.” As the SARS outbreak in 2003 made clear in China and Hong Kong, governments sometimes cannot be trusted with providing accurate health information, and Beijing only changed its policy after investigative reporters and a handful of daring scientists told the international community that the outbreak was far more severe than the authorities would admit. This newspaper, for example, ran a series of articles in 2010 about the A(H1N1) vaccine produced by Taichung-based biotech company Adimmune Corp which raised questions about the safety of a vaccine that had seemingly gone through an expedited process and was about to be injected into large numbers of people in Taiwan.
KMT Legislator Alicia Wang (王育敏) was right when she said that the media have a social responsibility to ensure the public is correctly informed, especially since media excesses have often been problematic in Taiwan. However, leaving it to government alone to decide what information is correct is also problematic, especially in a country where government and corporate interests are so intimately related. To wit, the chairman of Adimmune was Steve Chan (詹啟賢), who was also then-deputy secretary-general of the KMT and deputy executive director of Ma’s presidential campaign.
The role of the media is not to be right all the time, but to serve as a platform where different views that are necessary for the citizenry to make informed decisions are aired. Censoring reporters or only providing “optimistic” opinion polls are not indicative of a government that values such a role for the media.