The buncombe over the PTS board

By Lu Shih-hsiang 盧世祥  / 

Thu, Jan 31, 2013 - Page 8

The latest review meeting to choose the fifth board of directors and board of supervisors for the Public Television Service (PTS) was held on Jan. 18, with five board members added to the eight previously chosen. That still left the board four members short of the required 17. As the meeting ended, Minister of Culture Lung Ying-tai (龍應台), who is responsible for organizing the review procedure, appeared, and I took the opportunity to have a few words with her.

“Minister, you must have consulted with the Chinese Nationalist Party [KMT] authorities prior to submitting the list of nominees, so why is it that the review committee members the party recommended scuttled your nominations?” I asked.

It was a simple matter of mathematics to confirm that it had been the KMT that had refused the ministry’s nominations. The list consisted of 15 names, and the six committee members recommended by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU) had issued a joint statement prior to the meeting declaring their support for 10 candidates and eliminating the five clearly controversial choices.

Had the eight committee members recommended by the KMT not objected to the ministry’s list, 10 candidates — most of whom had been recommended by civic groups — would have easily earned the required threshold of 12 votes.

Regrettably, not only were the candidates nominated by the civic groups rejected, but even Olympic bronze medalist Chi Cheng (紀政), regarded as a national treasure, only received seven votes. Academics committed to media reform — Chad Liu (劉昌德) from National Chung Cheng University’s communications department and Lin Lih-yun (林麗雲) of National Taiwan University’s Graduate Institute of Journalism — as well as 4-Way Voice chief editor Chang Cheng (張正) and former radio broadcaster Liu Ming (劉銘), who would have represented the socially disadvantaged — made it to the fourth round of voting before being rejected.

Many people have been frustrated by the drawn-out nominations process for the PTS board. Some are blaming partisan blue-green brinkmanship, while others think the solution is to lower the approval threshold. Amid all this speculation and recommendations, it is important to get a clear view of the facts if we hope to make wise decisions and choices.

Crucial questions to ask are: What are the causes of the failure to form a PTS board? Who is at fault?

The tenure of the fourth PTS board expired on Dec. 30, 2010, and in the absence of replacements, was “automatically extended” for a period now close to 800 days, and counting. In the interval, the review committee has met six times, confirming 13 nominees. People are asking why the old board has been extended this long, and why it is so difficult to form a new board.

First, let’s look at the actions of Cabinet-level agencies. The Legislative Yuan appointed 15 individuals considered upstanding members of the community to sit on the review committee, with the number of committee members allowed each party weighted according to the percentage of seats it holds in the legislature.

In two meetings, the first in November 2010, and the second in January 2011, the committee selected five directors and one member of the board of supervisors, and also suggested that the Cabinet submit more nominations as soon as possible. That advice was ignored by the last two ministers of the now-dissolved Government Information Office (GIO) — Johnny Chiang (江啟臣) and Philip Yang (楊永明).

This situation dragged on for more than 17 months, until the newly established Ministry of Culture finally nominated more candidates in June last year. The committee then met in August, but it was not until this month that a new list of nominees was submitted to the committee.

In other words, the GIO left the process in limbo for 520 days, and the Ministry of Culture, which took over the GIO’s remit, drew it out for another 140, a total of 660 days between them. Much of the blame, then, lies at the feet of these agencies, due to their arrogant reluctance to act.

Second, is there a boycott in the review process, and who is doing the boycotting?

We have seen how the KMT-backed committee members turned down Lung’s nominations from the civic groups’ list in this month’s meeting. From the votes cast in the August meeting, it is clear that the nominations the opposition-recommended members supported — media reform advocate Lo Shih-hung (羅世宏), former Chinese Television System president Hsu Lu (徐璐) and former PTS president Hu Yuan-hui (胡元輝) — met the same fate.

There are various interpretations as to why the KMT failed to support the nominations submitted by the GIO and the ministry. My own feeling is that the KMT shot down its own side’s nominees as an excuse to blame it on a “minority boycott” and pave the way for an amendment to the law that would allow it to reduce the threshold needed for approval.

However, the six opposition-backed members were prepared for this tactic and called for a lowering of the threshold. Their declaration was made for two reasons: First, to show their goodwill and intent to fill the seats on the boards, so PTS could make a new start; and second, as insurance against accusations the continuing failure to fill the boards was their fault. Unfortunately, this did not quite work as they had hoped, although it really could not be any more obvious who had sabotaged the completion of the PTS board.

The opposition-backed committee members are holding to their ideals, but are being “isolated.” They are insisting that the whole process be conducted above board, announcing the nominee list in advance, rather than waiting for the meeting and making a decision on the spot. They reject any idea that they are simply there to vote as expected. They want the whole review process to be transparent, and documented — either in writing or recorded — and even to have journalists present during meetings. They called for broad participation by citizens and for the candidates nominated by civic groups to be accepted. Finally, they insisted that no members from the old boards involved in disputes should continue to serve.

These demands can be found in the records of statements these committee members issued. Their record proves they have responded to the demands of civic groups and made themselves responsible to the public. It is because they have been so resolute that the ministry has been so willing to follow their advice by announcing the names of the committee members ahead of the Jan. 18 meeting, and arranging for the meeting to be broadcast live and for civic group representatives to attend.

The way the whole process has been carried out, with its fairness, its transparency and the degree of public participation, can serve as a model for how meetings of this kind should be held.

The delay in the formation of a new board is not PTS’ only woe. There were spats between members of the previous board, as well as legal issues, in which things have turned quite ugly.

Four years ago, the KMT tried to bring PTS to heel by freezing its budget, triggering a protest outside the Legislative Yuan. It went on to introduce amendments to the law, including the “Lin Yi-shih (林益世) clause”— named after the former Executive Yuan secretary-general who devised it — to increase the size of the board, so it could bring in its own people and take control of the board. The Control Yuan censured the appointments because of the procedural and legal irregularities.

Then, a lawsuit against former PTS chairman Cheng Tung-liao (鄭同僚) was thrown out of court, as was one brought against his successor, Sylvia Feng (馮賢賢), whose performance was exemplary, but who was deemed “insubordinate.”

Control of the press is inherent in a party-state system, as evidenced by the fact that the prohibition on launching new newspapers was lifted in 1988, two years after the prohibition on new political parties was lifted in 1986. The current farce over forming the new PTS board demonstrates how difficult it is to change this.

Whether the disputes among board members can be resolved lies in the hands of the KMT authorities. They owe Feng and Cheng a public and sincere apology, as well as compensation.

As for the formation of the new boards, the nominees recommended by either side should be accepted as quickly as possible, so there can be a balanced and representative list. Any problems the KMT has with these names should be addressed. If this is done, there is no reason why the new boards cannot be formed within a short period of time.

Many people are talking about amending the law, and even putting everything on hold until such changes can be made, placing the responsibility for appointing board members in the hands of the Cabinet. This would not be a good idea. Yes, the three-quarters approval threshold is quite high, but it exemplifies the essence of PTS as being for the entire public, and not something that only one party or person can control.

The problems with nominating a new board lie with individuals, not the law, so there is no reason to amend it. And if the law is amended, these changes should only apply to future boards; they should not be implemented immediately. That would be like changing the rules halfway through a sports competition: It makes no sense, and violates universal principles.

Neither does calling for the review committee to operate an open ballot make any sense. The Ministry of the Interior’s regulations governing meetings clearly stipulate that votes for individuals should be done, in the tried and tested way, with a closed ballot. As for the idea of open ballots for votes on policy, it is already an accepted principle. It would not be wise to violate conventions or universal principles just for the sake of one PTS board term.

Lu Shih-hsiang is an adviser to the Taipei Times.

Translated by Paul Cooper