On New Year’s Eve, a group of students gathered in Liberty Square in Taipei to fight for an ideal that might never be realized. They were unlike other young people taking part in New Year’s Eve celebrations. They did not have any celebrities entertaining them, only thousands of like-minded young people with a burning desire to see the progress of civil society and democracy in Taiwan, as they protested against media monopoly.
Unfortunately, the president and senior government officials were neither willing to thank them for their love of their country nor show them any support, and I really cannot get my head around the government’s attitude.
When I teach university courses about media, I stress that the mass media are like the eyes and ears of the public in modern societies. The media are very powerful because people rely on them to understand what is going on in the world around them and how whoever owns and controls the media can control what people hear or do not hear and see or do not see.
For example, if Chinese media outlets did not report about how Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波) won the Nobel Peace Prize, the general public would not have known about it, given that not everyone in China knows how to get around the government’s strict Internet controls to find alternative sources of information on the Web.
Therefore, if those running media outlets do not regard the media as a public instrument, and if their choice of content is always based on the preferences of a media boss who happens to own many different media outlets, then the public would receive only what that person likes or wants people to know. If that media boss is not happy with something and does not want people to know about it, the media outlets will simply not report it. Is that really what a democratic society and freedom of the press are supposed to be about?
A democratic society is valuable because it allows a free competition of ideas. The media serve as a public forum where people can express different opinions in a fair manner.
However, what can actually be expressed is still subject to a certain set of standards that help guarantee that what is expressed is in line with public interests. These standards are what media being a type of public forum in democratic societies is all about.
However, some legislators have used this as an argument for the right of TV stations to broadcast what they want, as well as not to report what they do not want. This is a depressing viewpoint. Such legislators have no clue about the role that the mass media should play and the responsibilities they bear in a democratic society. They probably believe that running a media outlet is like a hawker selling food from a roadside stall — hawkers can prepare their food any way they like and if customers do not like it, they do not have to buy it.
The Taiwanese audience really has it bad. Not only does it have to worry about the media being controlled by a minority and not hearing what they should hear about, it is also concerned about the media being manipulated as part of the battle between the pan-blue and pan-green political camps.
Taiwan cannot have a democratic future if the media is only concerned with the struggle between political ideologies instead of the pursuit of truth.
Taiwan can never become a true civil society as long as the public remains ignorant of and lack interest in knowing what role media should play and the functions it should perform in a modern society.
Looking at the process of democratization in Taiwan, shows that those born in the 1940s and 1950s put up a hard resistance against authoritarian rule, establishing a democratic system and laying down a basis for democratic development in the nation. These are the common memories of the people of that era.
Following in their footsteps, those born in the 1960s and 1970s fought for democratization within school campuses, making democratic movements on campus the common memories of people of this generation.
Those born in the 1980s and 1990s will be the next lot of people to take charge of society. We would do well to stop for a moment and think about what their common memories will be.
After martial law was lifted, the media have been in a chaotic state that has lasted up to this day. This situation has been aggravated by capitalist ideas about maximizing returns on investment, resulting in a worsening media environment.
It has come to the point that the hard work that those born in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s have done for the nation’s democratization is about to be swallowed up by media controls. Faced with these challenges, those born in the 1980s and 1990s have to work harder to push media reform.
This will not only make a huge contribution to the nation’s future, but will also become a common memory that they can proudly tell future generations. Young people fighting against media monopoly should continue doing what they are doing.
Chen Ping-hung is a professor at National Taiwan Normal University’s Graduate Institute of Mass Communication.
Translated by Drew Cameron