Freedom of Press in Taiwan

In a previous post, A Cockroach in Taiwan, the subject was a case in which a poliician/television host ran a piece of simulated television video for political ends.  He was detected, but not after having caused a major public panic and economic losses to restaurants.

In a front-cover article (in Chinese) at New Taiwan magazine, it was pointed out that the print and electronic media were doubly guilty in the aforementioned case for collectively magnifying the original claims into a frenzy as well as attacking the politician afterwards without examining their own own complicity.  This was not an isolated incident, and the cumulative result of a relentless parade of media misdeeds has been a gradual erosion of public trust in the news media.  While the news media are regarded with some awe as the 'uncrowned kings' for their independence and power, there is now also more than a tinge of contempt towards them.

Taiwan is an unusual television news market in that there are eight cable/satellite news channels in addition to the news programs on broadcast network channels.  Given so many channels, it is a simple piece of arithmetic to deduce tht some of them will have tiny ratings, and are therefore induced to go to the extreme for sensationalistic exclusives in order to garner higher ratings and survive commercially.

In this case, the free market may not be a solution.  In a free market, all news channels compete in a fair environment, and the best performers will be rewarded and the worse performers will be eliminated.  But the news environment is not always 'fair', as the sensationalistic (and not always accurate) news items receive greater attention, and that may not be the best social result.

In Apple Daily, now comes the interim progress report from the Government Information Office about the current round of license renewal.  Of the eight full-time cable/satellite news channels, seven were up for license renewal.  If the license is successfully renewed, the channel can operate for another six years.

When a cable/satellite news channel applies for a license renewal, it is evaluated by the Government Information Office Evaluation Committee.  This committee is formed by 13 representatives who are professionally involved in the communications, corporate management, engineering and finance industries.  Each channel is graded with a passing threshold of 70 out of 100 points.

At the interim stage, two of the seven news channels (FTV (民視) and Unique (非凡)) have passed, while Era (年代), SETN (年代), TVBS-N, ETTV News (東森) and ETTV-S (東森 S) have failed, all with scores in the 60's.  

Here are the specific problems identified for each channel:

As you might expect, these interim results have drawn some skeptical inferences about the government's motives.  In another Apple Daily report, one (obviously) anonymous manager with one of those 'failed' channels wondered aloud if FTV and Unique passed so easily because they had conducted favorable interviews with president Chen Shui-bian recently.  However, it would seem that if the President of the United States wants an interview with a weekly news magazine, the choice is more likely between Newsweek and Time, and definitely not the tabloid National Enquirer.  Being placed next to more stories about Elvis sightings or UFO alien kidpnappings is not exactly favored.  Instead of inferring political motives, the television channel managers should perhaps take a close look at their own programming contents.

Another anonymous manager said that if the DPP wants to interfere with the media, the obvious steps would have been: 

  1. The Government Information Office will not renew the license
  2. The banks will not provide the financing
  3. The government departments and corporations will not buy advertising time
  4. The government departments and corporations will not become sponsors

But another general manager was prepared to defend the government: "It was appropriate for the government to take this position.  Much of recent news coverage is sensationalized like soap operas.  I have no idea whatever happened to journalistic ethics.  It was the media which caused this state of affairs, and it is a good thing for the government to use the evaluation reviews to get the various news channels to reflect and change."

In any case, this is only an interim report card and the 'failed' stations will have the opportunity to respond and, if necessary, propose any remedial actions.  It is difficult to imagine that any of the five will be rejected in the end.  The more general lesson is that freedom of press is not absolute.  In the United States, broadcast television channels also have their licences approved and renewed by a Federal Communication Commission, and incidents like A Cockroach in Taiwan would probably be looked at just as dimly.