PROFILE: Professor fights for media diversity, independence

By Chen Hsiao-yi and Stacy Hsu  /  Staff reporter, with Staff writer

Wed, Mar 13, 2013 - Page 3

A staunch advocate of press freedom, Chang Chin-hwa (張錦華) has vowed to safeguard the nation’s hard-earned media diversity and independence in the face of growing Chinese influence.

“At the dawn of a new year, we are standing at a tipping point where this pluralistic democratic society that we all take pride in could either move forward or backward,” Chang, a professor at National Taiwan University’s Graduate Institute of Journalism, told hundreds of university students staging a sit-in protest against media monopolization on Ketagalan Boulevard on New Year’s Day.

The protest, along with many other similar ones, was sparked by a spate of media acquisition cases that many believe could jeopardize freedom of the press in the nation.

Topping these controversial cases is the NT$17.5 billion (US$600 million) buyout of four of Next Media Group’s media outlets in Taiwan by a conglomerate involving Tsai Eng-meng (蔡衍明), chairman of Want Want China Times Group — a pro-China group that already owns several media outlets in Taiwan, including China Television, the Chinese-language newspapers Want Daily and China Times, and China Times Weekly magazine. The acquisition is still under review by regulatory authorities.

“Is national security on the verge of erosion? Do we want to live in a society where syndicates monopolize [the markets], diversity is on the wane, freedom is restricted, the media are open to interference from China, journalists are deprived of their dignity, journalism graduates have nowhere to go, and news reports are nothing but vendible products that deceive the public or serve as propaganda tools for China?” Chang asked at the time.

The rousing speech is but a part of the huge effort Chang has made to push media reform and fight media concentration.

Since 2011, when the Want Wang China Times Group’s bid to buy the cable television services owned by China Network Systems, the nation’s second-largest multi-system operator, raised public concern over the possible formation of a “media monster,” Chang has fought alongside press freedom advocates with words and actions to prevent media monopolies.

Chang has never backed down in the face of China’s relentless attempts to influence Taiwanese media in various forms, but rather has stepped up her advocacy of newsroom autonomy by supplementing her academic expertise in journalism with increased participation in media reform movements.

“As an intellectual, it is my obligation to be able to make a difference to the development of this nation and society. Being a public intellectual is not about locking oneself at home writing research papers, but about actively participating in policymaking and positively influencing society,” Chang said.

From her long-time studies on Chinese influence in Taiwan’s media environment, Chang said China had sought to glorify itself through the use of embedded marketing, resulting in a lack of negative news reports about China.

“That imbalanced reporting has seen some Taiwanese people lauding the integrity of the Chinese government after [former president] Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) was charged with corruption,” Chang said.

Taiwanese media reports on Chinese issues also lack diversity, because most of them are related to the Chinese government, she said.

Chang said the government should confront the impact on Taiwanese media of the “China factor,” which has taken on many forms, such as “paid” news reports that market a positive image of China and China-based Taiwanese businesspeople who operate media outlets in Taiwan and interfere with newsroom autonomy.

“In the latter scenario, as these businesspeople’s assets and profits are held hostage in China, they have no option but to run errands for China as its stooges,” Chang said.

A spearhead of media reform movements, Chang has for years been on the front line of efforts to prevent media monopolies from dictating views.

In an effort to warn the government against a “media monster” in the making, Chang compiled a 50-page question-and-answer document titled “Why the Government Should Veto the Next Media Merger Case,” which included opinions from several academics.

She was also among the initiators of a signature drive last year that sought to halt the Next Media takeover, striving to prohibit media, as a social utility, from falling into the hands of a few profit-driven consortiums.

While both Chang and her husband, National Taiwan University philosophy professor Lin Huo-wang (林火旺), are both members of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), they have been vocal critics of President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration.

“It is our [Chang and Lin] common belief that we must put the [interests of the] nation and the people above [those] of political parties,” she said. “For the betterment of the country, one is obligated to come forward and point out mistakes even if they were made by one’s own political party.”

Chang said that while attempts to offer words of advice to the government or seek to make a difference in society often involved mismatched tussles between “small shrimps” and “big whales,” each individual is still capable of playing a decisive role in the country.

The task of pushing media reform is arduous and difficult, as press freedom advocates are vulnerable to litigation by big conglomerates, some of which even use their media resources to launch tirades against media campaigners, she said.

“Because what we advocate is a challenge to some media proprietors with a vested interest in the industry and who are unlikely to report issues that are unfavorable to them or to support reform to change the current system, the road to media reform is especially difficult,” Chang said.

However, Chang said she continues to be motivated by a sense of justice to do what is right.

Although history shows that none of the media reform movements had ever succeeded, Chang said they did accomplish one thing: raising public awareness about media monopolization to prevent further backroom deals involving business and government.

“From now on, media mergers are subject to public participation and close scrutiny by civic groups. Increased public awareness [about media concentration] is the most valuable experience we have gained from years of media reform campaigns,” she said.