Following wave upon wave of public anger that has surged in the past weeks and months over the democratic crisis of a business tycoon attempting to monopolize media, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) finally responded to journalists concerns about the threat of a media monopoly and dangers posed to the freedom in news reporting.
Ma’s response was startling, so much so that it is impossible to determine whether he is completely clueless or just pretending to be.
The government’s official human rights report, the Chinese-language version of which was published in April, clearly states that financial groups were using their prodigious financial resources and other methods to continuously expand their media holdings, which would result in control of the media being concentrated in the hands of a few.
In a press conference to announce the publication of the English-language version of the report last week, Ma seemed oblivious to the warnings the report contained, saying that the law had clear regulations regarding media ownership rights; an entirely vacuous statement.
He suggested that current legislation was sufficiently adequate to safeguard against the monopolization of the of content in the media. It is inconceivable that Ma, as head of state, is unaware of the dangers of media monopolization. After all, the question surfaced as early as 2009.
It is similarly inconceivable that Ma would not know that former National Communications Commission (NCC) chairwoman Su Herng (蘇蘅) conceded in the Legislative Yuan that there are serious flaws in such legislation and admitted that, not only had the government failed to provide a unified regulatory framework for media ownership, but that it also lacked a clear and substantive policy with which to address the issue.
It is even more unacceptable that Ma should, through his comments, suggest that the issue of media monopolization lay entirely in the hands of two independent government agencies –– the NCC and the Fair Trade Commission –– absolving himself of any responsibility.
Perhaps the president has forgotten that the heads of the NCC, which has earned a reputation for incompetence and dereliction of duty, have all taken office during his time in power after he promised “complete governance” and “complete responsibility” upon becoming president in 2008.
Under the principle of responsible governance that lies at the heart of democratic politics and under the principle of the administrative unity of constitutional government, the president cannot stand alone.
It should be clarified that it is inappropriate for the president to intervene in individual cases decided by independent government bodies. However, Ma cannot absolve himself of the blame for the government’s thorough negligence and incompetence in its handling of this issue.
Ma prides himself on Taiwan’s respect of human rights and that his signing of the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).
It is even more important for him to take affirmative steps to prevent the concentration of the media in to the hands of a tycoon known to sneer at the freedom of the press and who has trampled over the professional integrity of the news media.
Ma cannot neglect this duty, in terms of either constitutional law or human rights legislation.
The government must know that last year in Geneva, Switzerland, the UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) issued its 49-point General Comment No. 34 on Article 19 of the ICCPR — the article concerning the freedom of expression — point 40 of which reiterated that signatory nations “should promote plurality of the media” and “should take appropriate action, consistent with the Covenant, to prevent undue media dominance or concentration by privately controlled media groups in monopolistic situations that might be harmful to a diversity of sources and views.”
Since Taiwan has already enacted the Act to Implement the ICCPR and ICESCR (公民與政治權利國際公約及經濟社會文化權利國際公約施行法), the government has implicitly recognized that Taiwan is legally bound to comply with these covenants under domestic law, and acknowledged that it is required to abide by the legislative intent and interpretations of the two covenants issued by the UN Human Rights Committee.
It has also agreed that government agencies have a duty to comply with the stipulations within the covenants pertaining to human rights guarantees in the way they conduct themselves.
If the president is sincere about implementing the two covenants and not just paying lip service to them, he cannot take a passive attitude toward media monopolization. He should clarify where he stands on the issue and take affirmative action.
Ma knows he no longer faces the pressure of having to seek re-election. It could well be that he is now more interested in his historical legacy than his present popularity.
Nevertheless, he faces a key stage of an issue involving Taiwan’s very democracy.
Is he going to side with a business tycoon who would think little of obliterating the media’s ability to protect democracy and thereby be guilty by virtue of his failure to act. Or is he going to side with those who would protect Taiwan’s democratic values?
Huang Kuo-chang is an associate research fellow at the Institutum Iurisprudentiae of the Academia Sinica.
Translated by Paul Cooper