Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Next Media Owner Lai in the WSJ

Next Media owner Jimmy Lai, the Hong Kong media mogul, weighed in at the WSJ on the NCC's refusal to grant a cable license to Next Media. This is a forthright, strong, and important article -- all credit to WSJ for running it and to Lai for writing it. Note the title: Taiwan's Less-Free Media: The government of President Ma Ying-jeou is tightening controls on Taiwan's press. Lai says:
In China, government assaults on free expression regularly generate attention around the world. Less so in other parts of Asia, alas. So when Taiwan's telecommunications and broadcasting regulator rejected my company's application for new cable TV licenses multiple times in the last year, most recently last month, the news went almost unnoticed outside Taiwan.

We are not the only media company affected; the government of President Ma Ying-jeou has undertaken several initiatives to restrain the previously vibrant Taiwanese press. As the majority owner of Next Media, I have a strong vested interest in this particular case. However, I believe that anyone who values the free flow of information—not to mention the future of a free Taiwan—should be concerned.

In delivering its decision, Taiwan's National Communications Commission cited concerns that we might not be able to satisfy various regulations, and that we might try to circumvent existing program-rating restrictions. Most ominously of all, the NCC said it could not be sure that Next Media would "fulfill its social responsibilies as a mass media operator." These are all shockingly subjective rationales. Instead of dealing with the facts and merits of our application, the NCC is punishing us on the basis of what we might do.

Next Media has been an effective competitor in the Taiwan market, and it is likely at least some of the pressure on the NCC comes from media firms that do not want to compete with Next. Apple Daily, the print rag, has managed to do something amazing in Taiwan's partisan media environment: it has positioned itself as an unaligned media outlet.

Lai says right out loud: this refusal to give a license is an attack on press freedom sanctioned at the highest levels:

Nor has the government stopped with Next TV. Last week, the NCC revoked the entertainment channel license of another broadcaster, ERA TV, sparking protest from some lawmakers.

In an even more worrying development, the Taiwanese legislature is now considering a bill that would ban news outlets from "describing or illustrating violence, bloodshed, pornographic sexuality, or lewdness in detail." The language containing this provision is part of a group of amendments being pushed by an NGO called the Child Welfare League Foundation, as well as by the Taiwanese government's Child Welfare Bureau.

The goal, to shield children from violent or graphic content, is a laudable one. But in practice, this law would have a chilling effect on reporting for children and adults alike. So vague is the wording, it has the potential to impact the reporting of every crime, every accident—not to mention every embarrassing misadventure by a Taiwanese politician.

Here it helps to remember that though the NCC is an ostensibly "neutral" body, its members are nonetheless nominated in proportion to the number of seats of political parties held in the legislature. Today the KMT has an overwhelming majority in Taiwan's legislature and holds the presidency. So one has to wonder whether the quality of reporting in Taiwan is really the driving concern here. The NCC would not undertake actions that endanger press freedom and the reputation of Taiwan if President Ma and the ruling KMT did not back their actions.

Lai's inclusion of the NCC's shutdown of ERA is probably unwise though the local media has reacted to it strongly as a threat to all of them. However, the NCC's case against ERA looks pretty solid. The Taipei Times reported last week:

Commission spokesperson Chen Jeng-chang (陳正倉) said ERA TV’s operating license was issued on Feb. 27, 2004, and expired on Feb. 26.

“The commission knew the channel had 49 recorded violations in the past six years, with penalties totaling NT$16.75 million [US$540,000],” Chen said. “Although the commission granted the renewal, there were two conditions.”

The first was that the channel’s content must abide by Articles 17 and 19 of the Satellite Broadcasting Act (衛星廣播電視法) — which in general terms regulate content and hidden advertisements respectively — for a period of a year following renewal. The second stipulated that program reruns could not exceed 60 percent of daily content.

The channel had three violations since February, Chen said.

The most serious was in June, when the channel was fined NT$1 million for failing to distinguish between regular programs and commercials, thus violating Article 19 of the act.

“The commission sent an official notice in July, which informed the channel it had violated the conditions for its license renewal,” Chen said.

The channel was also fined NT$2.1 million as it continued to operate after its operational license became invalid in July.

The interesting thing is whether the shutdown of ERA is what it appears to be on the surface, a reasonable response to a continuing problem, or whether it is the opening salvo in an assault on the media for political purposes, in which ERA is the "reasonable" victim that makes more outrageously politically-motivated attacks possible.

People often focus on direct government assaults on the media, but there are two other serious problems. First, the government's use of "advertorials", fake news stories that are really a form of advertising for the government's own policies and products, is out of control:

Although the practice, also known as placing “advertorials,” was adopted 10 years ago when the Democratic Progressive Party was in power, the KMT did not address it after regaining power in May 2008, [Premier] Wu told reporters.

“A government is bound to promote itself, so is a candidate, a political party, a company or a state, but there should be a clear distinction between news stories, advertisements and promotion,” Wu said. “Product placements should be avoided.”

Product placements “deceive” people, he said, because they are a form of paid advertisement masquerading as a news story.

“While it is impossible for -governments or companies to refrain from running promotions or advertisements, a line must be drawn to distinguish promotion and advertisement by businesses, political parties or individuals from objective news stories,” Wu said.

The controversy over the government’s use of advertorials came to the fore after veteran reporter Huang Je-bing (黃哲斌) resigned from the China Times on Dec. 12, likening the practice to the use of propaganda by the Chinese Communist Party. On Sunday, more than 100 reporters and professors of communication at various universities signed a petition calling on the government to stop resorting to advertorials, a practice they claim has grown substantially under the Ma administration.

The legislature is now working on legislation to address the issue. An article on the signature campaign is here. A media official, commenting in the Taipei Times, observed:
In 2008, Ma signed a pledge opposing embedded marketing of a political nature, but since then the government has continued to use taxpayers’ money for this purpose. According to ratings published late last year by AC Nielsen, advertising for the top 50 government agencies topped NT$1.24 billion (US$42 million), and the combined advertising and PR budget for the Mainland Affairs Council (陸委會) was as high as NT$180 million. These attempts to strip the fourth estate of its right of supervision and oversight threatens to destroy the core value of news reporting. This attack on the freedom of the press could force Taiwan even further down international ratings. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, compiled by the UK’s Economist magazine, has even returned Taiwan to the “flawed democracy” category.
The corrupting effects of government money flowing into the media are bad enough, but private corporations also do the same thing, I have heard. Chinese money also flows into Taiwan's media as well.....
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Lao White Wondress said...

"Instead of dealing with the facts and merits of our application, the NCC is punishing us on the basis of what we might do."

Ma Ying-jeou, always concerned for Taiwan's place in the world (read: Sinosphere), has opened the democratic world's first pre-crime fighting regulatory unit. Props!

My only nit is 2010 doesn't really sound as ominous as 1984 or 2012. If he wants to do movie rights in the future, I really don't think "2010" is so appropriate a title. Maybe it's just me. I dunno.

Anonymous said...

I love how the overriding message the Chinese bike guy seems to convey is that Taiwanese people are not selfish assholes like so many people in China.