Sun, Jan 04, 2009 - Page 3 News List

ANALYSIS: Government using media as a tool, critics say

By Shih Hsiu-chuan  /  STAFF REPORTER

The way the government runs state-owned media reveals its failure to understand that the media is not a political tool to sway public opinion, but a means to promote the interests of the public, critics said yesterday.

On Thursday, thousands of people took to the streets in Taipei to protest against a draft motion by Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Lin Yi-shih (林益世) that would empower the government to screen Public Television Service's (PTS) news coverage and programming.

Lin's motion requires the public broadcaster to obtain an item-by-item approval from the Government Information Office (GIO) for its budget expenditure and an expansion of its board seats.

If the proposal were passed, the government would also be empowered to exercise censorship and oversight over the programming policy and daily operation of Taiwan Indigenous Television Service, Taiwan Hakka Television, and Taiwan Macroview Television.

Although GIO Minister Su Jin-pin (蘇俊賓) said on Thursday he was still in talks with Lin and “there is still room for negotiation [on the motion],” the government appears to be watching idly while the KMT caucus attempts to interfere with PTS.

For one, the KMT-dominated legislature has frozen half of PTS' budget of NT$900 million (US$27.42 million) in the past year, media observers said.

PTS' plight was not the first case to arouse activists' concern over curbs on freedom of speech and media independence under the KMT administration.

“In the eyes of the KMT, the media is an important tool for winning elections. This is the biggest problem,” said Chuang Feng-chia (莊豐嘉), head of the Association of Taiwan Journalists.

The veteran journalist said that “the KMT did not fully realize this eight years ago as it had never lost power before.”

However, “after realizing it can influence elections through media manipulation, it sought to control the media and annihilate new agencies it deemed unfriendly,” Chuang said.

Chuang said such a mindset explains why Lo Chih-chiang (羅智強), a spokesman for KMT presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) during the presidential campaign earlier last year, was appointed deputy president of the state-owned Central News Agency (CNA), and Wang Tan-ping (汪誕平), head of the KMT's policy research department, was named director of the state-owned Radio Taiwan International (RTI).

The KMT also nominated four legislators to new positions on the review committee in charge of selecting PTS board member candidates.

Placing members of Ma's team in the state-owned media was tantamount to putting up a screening mechanism at these media outlets to ensure cooperation with the KMT administration, Chuang said.

Reports have emerged of infringement on media freedom at CNA and RTI — some reporters could not get their reports published or aired, others were told to write down reports about the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) or to downplay unflattering news about the government, and a number were transferred to other beats at the request of officials.

None of these developments were publicized for reasons that could include fear of losing one's job, Chuang said, adding that no one can compel the persons concerned to come forward to defend media freedom and run the risk of losing their salary.

Another concern about political intervention in media is the practice of embedded marketing, in which the government pays media outlets in exchange for media coverage.

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