By Chen Ping-hung 陳炳宏
Wed, Jan 12, 2011,Page 8
On Jan. 3, Premier Wu Den-yih (吳敦義), on the instruction of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), announced that “the government shall not buy news, and advertorials embedded in programming should be properly labeled.”
Then, as a formal response to a statement by a group of academics protesting against embedded government advertorials in the media, the Government Information Office issued a document listing issues that government agencies should pay attention to when planning the dissemination of their policies.
If the government took the demands for media reform coming from various groups seriously and implemented this policy, it would be worth a notation in the annals of the nation’s media reform.
However, if we were to follow the dictum of Sun Yat-sen (孫逸仙), the founder of the Republic of China (ROC), that people should neither rest nor waver until the revolution is successfully realized, the changes would only be one small step on the road toward media reform.
Since only time will tell if those reforms will really be implemented, it is safe to say that there is still a long way to go before Taiwanese media have been reformed.
In the late 1980s, about at the time martial law was lifted, calls for media reform came mainly from the Taipei Society, which pushed for less involvement in the media by political parties, the military and the government. The Taipei Society was joined by the Alliance for the Democratization of Terrestrial TV in the late 1990s, and in 2003 the legislature responded by passing legislation stipulating that those three groups — political parties, the military and the government — must withdraw from all media ownership.
Another media reform campaign that began at about the same time was the campaign to demand the establishment of public television.
Although this was started in the 1970s — prior to the lifting of martial law and before the demand for the withdrawal of the political parties, the military and the government from media ownership — the public didn’t really get behind the campaign until the 1980s. Legislation was finally passed in 1997, a year before public television was established and before the completion of the legislation banning the three aforementioned groups from media ownership.
Over the past decade, the media have gone from being the mouthpiece of the sole political party — used to maintain ideological control during the Martial Law era by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) — to a medium for public entertainment. Having jumped into bed with the market economy, the media have slipped steadily downhill, to the point where they have become one of the three main sources of the chaos now seen in country.
This decline is why there are so many calls for media reform. The government’s embedded advertorials, aimed at promoting its policies, comprise only one of the problems and it was not until late last year that 100 media academics finally called on the government to deal with the problem. The catalyst was the resignation of veteran China Times reporter Huang Je-bing (黃哲斌), whose resignation letter drew attention to this growing practice.
However, does that really solve the problems with the media? No, there is still a very long way to go.
Clear rules that government agencies will no longer buy news and transparency regarding the identity of the organization paying for embedded advertorials is just the beginning.
Furthermore, it is only a passive approach because there is always the question of how much restrictive power an administrative order actually has on government agencies. The question is whether the order will be followed consistently by both the central and local governments or whether a more fundamental, stronger solution should be found, perhaps entailing a complete ban on government advertorials in any kind of media outlet.
There have been suggestions that the Cabinet’s policy is passive and that if the government really wants to eliminate all inappropriate media advertorials, it must be clearly stipulated that, in addition to the regulations on transparency, broadcasts sponsored or commissioned by the government cannot be allowed to influence the editorial independence of a program. That, and only that, would be a show of determination.
A version should also be proposed that defines the announcement public television advertised information, forcing that it be broadcast separately from programming. Thus, government policy announcements would be confined to advertising segments and completely banned from appearing as embedded advertorials in -regular programming.
Wu’s announcement, is just the beginning. It does not solve the problem of embedded advertorials because public monitoring is still required to determine whether the government is able to control the media and because the public will have to find ways of resolving the issue of how to regulate the embedded marketing of other products.
As one of the academics demanding media reform, my new vision involves several approaches, which include: ensuring the independence of public television and preventing inappropriate forces from interfering with public media; supervising foreign investment in the media; ensuring a diversified media; building an effective media regulation system and initiating the participation of civic organizations in public control mechanisms; continuing to supervise inappropriate embedded advertorials in the media and ensuring the media’s independence; and blocking the use of the media as a government tool in the vitriolic battle between the pan-blue and pan-green camps.
These proposals would help bring about the democratization of the media.
In terms of media reform, all these things are worthwhile goals, because without a healthy media there will not be a democratic Taiwan. I will therefore end by iterating Sun’s call — those who work for media reform should neither rest nor waver until the media revolution is successfully realized.
Chen Ping-hung is a professor at National Taiwan Normal University’s Graduate Institute of Mass Communication.
TRANSLATED BY PERRY SVENSSON