I have lost count of how many times the proposed amendments to the Radio and Television Act (廣播電視法) that would repeal the ban on the government, political parties and the military from investing in the mass media have come and gone in the legislature over the years. Although the pan-blue and pan-green camps have a longstanding consensus and although there has been yet another transition of government power, the amendments have not been passed.
This is not an issue about investment approach or shareholding percentages. What matters is that the proposed amendments go against democratic ideals and highlight the selfish motives of those in power, and this is why the articles cannot be abolished.
Putting aside the principle that the radio waves belong to all citizens, it is a basic democratic requirement that the government, political parties and the military should not to be involved in the operation of broadcast media. The idea is simple and should be understood by everyone: The supervised should never own its supervisor.
Think about it: If the government, which, of course, should be supervised, can own the media that supervises it, would this still be a democracy?
One cannot help but wonder whether the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was playing politics or if the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) was just plain dumb when the act was amended in 2003: Article 5-1 was added to prohibit the involvement of the government, political parties and the military in media businesses — the so-called “party, government and military clauses” — but not a single word was deleted from Article 5, which allows the government to establish media outlets.
Article 5-1 stipulates that, “[the] government and political parties, as well as foundations established with endowments provided by them, and those commissioned by them, may not directly or indirectly invest in privately operated radio/television businesses.”
However, Article 5 states that, “[those] established for specific purposes by the government in the name of the government are publicly operated radio/television businesses.”
On closer look, one can see that barring the government, political parties and the military from investing in privately operated media businesses in Article 5-1 has very little to do with Article 5, which allows the government to establish publicly operated media businesses.
However, juxtaposing these two articles reveals a fundamental contradiction between the two.
After the 2003 amendment, the government is not allowed to invest in privately operated media businesses, but it can still set up a publicly operated media business for a specific purpose. Hakka Radio, which was launched in June last year, was set up by the Hakka Affairs Council in accordance with Article 5.
In other words, even if Article 5-1 is deleted, the government can still own media businesses based on Article 5, and as long as Article 5 stays, the “party, government and military clauses” are a non-issue and nothing more than a trick played by the DPP and the KMT.
Deleting only Article 5-1, but keeping Article 5 intact would allow the government 100 percent ownership of media businesses: This kind of amendment does not make any sense, nor does it comply with the goal of having the government, political parties and the military pull out of media.
The constant calls to amend these clauses show the irrationality not only of Taiwanese society, but more so the legislature. Al political parties and factions tolerate the continued existence of Article 5 for selfish reasons because they want to maintain control of the media once they are back in power.
With business circles pushing the issue, no one is taking a serious look at the party, government and military clauses. No matter which party is in office, it only wants to amend Article 5-1, so as to please the big corporations while keeping Article 5 unchanged for its own benefit. This is unreasonable.
Article 5 should be deleted. Fifteen years after Article 5-1 was passed, the Hakka Affairs Council was still able to set up Hakka Radio, while the future of Hakka TV remains unclear. Abolishing Article 5 is more urgent than abolishing Article 5-1.
Article 5 has allowed the government to establish Hakka Radio and keeping it will allow it to set up a TV station for women or for elderly people because it serves a “specific purpose.” Is this reasonable?
After Article 5 is abolished, a sunset clause or a different operational mode could be designed for the seven state-run radio stations, such as the Central Broadcasting System and the Police Broadcasting Service. This will require listening to a wide range of opinion, and it is something that must be done.
I sometimes joke that the people working at National Education Radio are a pitiful bunch.
When political power shifted from the KMT to the DPP on May 20, 2016, the first thing they had to do after getting out of bed that morning was to change their stance on the 2019 curriculum guidelines for senior-high school social studies courses and start opposing it instead of supporting them because their bosses — the party in power and the minister of education, who takes direct charge of the station — had changed that day.
Last but not least, Article 5-1 should be retained because it puts democratic ideals into practice. As long as regulations are amended so that they limit shareholdings and the size of investments to avoid having the government, political parties or the military take effective control over media outlets or be directly involved in their management, the same effect as a legal amendment can be achieved.
The act originally stipulated that foreign investors cannot invest in terrestrial radio and television outlets, and this was how that ban was lifted. There is no reason not to make similar changes now.
Those who in the past proposed that the government, political parties and the military should retreat from media ownership and influence have never said that they should not be allowed to hold even a single share.
The main point is that they should not be allowed to control media outlets or interfere with their management, and that they should clearly disclose their holdings.
Chen Ping-hung is a professor at National Taiwan Normal University’s Graduate Institute of Mass Communication.
Translated by Chang Ho-ming
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