An inordinate amount of recent incidents have put the public in direct conflict with the government. People’s irrepressible anger has spread out onto the streets, with people demonstrating against government ministers. Meanwhile, the government, unwilling to talk to the public and fearful of the protests, has mobilized the police to cordon off places where senior government officials go, taking a heavy-handed approach to the protesters, which only exacerbates the situation. Tensions are mounting, and some people are concerned the specter of the Martial Law era is once more among us.
None of the controversies over the recent forced demolitions — in Miaoli County’s Dapu Borough (大埔), Taipei’s Wenlin Yuan (文林苑) urban renewal project and Huaguang Community (華光) — needed to have the outcomes they did. The main reason for the stalemate was the public street protests, and the government’s arrogance and lack of willingness to communicate, but there were other factors involved, too, not least the media’s failure to fulfill its role as a proper forum for public debate.
This last issue contributed to a paralysis, making the resolution of these issues impossible.
Over the past few years the media has given the impression of being vital and vigorous, but it has also displayed a peculiar failure in the field of public affairs. The dozens of Taiwanese newspapers out there, about 100 TV channels and hundreds of magazines, all provide prodigious amounts of information, yet the information is so fragmented that the media is failing to fulfill its remit of keeping tabs on the government and corporate groups.
The mass media does focus attention on important issues. The needless death of army corporal Hung Chung-chiu (洪仲丘) would never have got the attention it has without sustained media coverage, and it is doubtful that without this coverage the Ministry of National Defense nor the president would have apologized. However, when the media storm subsides, another story will come along, and the media will just forget and move on. Also, the public receives only a fragmentary, mosaic-like picture of an issue: it is not given the whole picture, and for this reason it is difficult for people to truly engage in an issue, or to usefully debate it.
The media seems incapable of presenting expert or systematic analysis, and reports are becoming increasingly disparate and unconnected. Thus, Staff Sergeant Fan Tso-hsien (范佐憲), questioned as part of Hung’s case, is painted as the devil incarnate, who dabbles in fast motorcycles, owns an expensive car and earns huge amounts of cash — and is there a mistress? Meanwhile, Staff Sergeant Chen Yi-hsun (陳毅勳) is cast as the blue-eyed boy from next door. Neither of these character caricatures have anything to do with the actual case, and yet they are splashed over front pages and TV screens. TV anchors are continuously talking about the case, but it is cobbled-together, illogical conjecture that only serves to confuse the audience and divert attention from human rights reform.
News comes in waves, one story after the other, and we rely on the media to provide us information. What the media chooses to focus upon at any given time informs our understanding of that issue. However, when it chooses to regard an issue as having run its course, we no longer see it on our screens, while in real life the story continues to unfold and affect society, albeit drowned out by the noise of the next story breaking. Therefore, even after the Dapu demolitions, non governmental organizations have remained involved, to make sure the injustice of the act is not easily forgotten.
The media’s failure to maintain focus on these issues is a dereliction of duty. With ineffectual media oversight, society becomes indifferent to what is going on and unjust forces can continue to work in the background, unchallenged.