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Public media independence threatened, despite government denials

Published on Wednesday 17 December 2008.
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Reporters Without Borders urges President Ma Ying-jeou to keep his promises to us to respect public media independence. He wrote in a letter to our secretary-general: "We believe that accusations of this administration’s interference in Taiwan’s media are based on some wrong information or misunderstandings." But the organisation has had disturbing reports of ruling Kuomintang party decisions undermining the independence of the public media.

"Taiwan should be a press freedom model in Asia and the independence of the public media is one of the key components of a free and diverse press system," Reporters Without Borders said. "We want to believe in President Ma’s promises but they must be translated into action."

The organisation added: "We are aware that political pressure on the public media is not new and existed under the previous government but it is vital that, regardless of political party debate, the media should have a favourable legislative and political environment. We urge the president to order a probe into the various accusations of meddling and to set up mechanisms that guarantee media independence."

In reply to a letter from Jean-François Julliard, the new Reporters Without Borders secretary-general, President Ma wrote that his government "will never attempt to control or interfere in the activities of the media." He added: "The ROC [Taiwanese] government is fully aware of the indispensable role that freedom of the press has played in the consolidation of our democracy (...) Both Taiwan’s governing party and the opposition cherish the freedom our people enjoy."

In his letter, at the end of October, Julliard had requested an explanation for recent cases of political pressure on the state media, above all on Radio Taiwan International (RTI) and the Central News Agency (CNA). Julliard wrote: "Reporters Without Borders has been told that some officials used to be in the habit of calling journalists to ask them to rewrite stories. Nowadays, officials try to exert a more general control by appointing leading government supporters to run them."

The chairman and some ten other senior members of the Public Television Service Foundation (PTSF) - which oversees the Public Television Service (PTS), Hakka Television, Indigenous Television and China Television Service - issued a statement on 10 December condemning the ruling Kuomintang’s attempts to control these media and calling for their independence to be guaranteed.

The Kuomintang’s campaign to reaffirm its influence over the public TV stations seems to have strengthened since parliament’s decision to freeze half of the PTSF’s budget. At the same time, two parliamentary committees decided that the programming of Hakka Television, Taiwan Macroview Television and Indigenous Television should be subject to review by the entities concerned by their content. The Kuomintang legislators within this committee also called for the TPBS (Taiwan Broadcasting System or Public Television Service) budget to be conditioned on agreement with the Government Information Office (GIO) about content.

Influential Kuomintang lawmakers also proposed amending the public television law without a view to having a supervisory council controlled by the ruling party. According to several sources, legislator Lin Yi-shih said he would like to get rid of the outspoken "PTS News Talk" show.

Parliament, in which the Kuomintang has a majority, decided in October to appoint six new members to the PTS’s supervisory board.

After Ma’s election, RTI’s chairman resigned in protest against GIO interference. CNA deputy editor-in-chief Chuang Feng-chia also resigned after condemning internal censorship on various subjects, including the president of China. He told Reporters Without Borders that the news agency "belongs to the country and not the Kuomintang." This was a few days after President Ma’s campaign director was appointed as the CNA’s deputy chairman.

In a letter to Julliard, the head of the GIO’s International Information Department, Manfred Peng, denied any interference and accused the RTI and CNA officials of manipulating their reasons for resigning. He insisted that the GIO just conveyed listener comments to RTI’s management without issuing any directives about content.

Chen Hsiao-yi of the Association of Taiwan Journalists told Reporters Without Borders that "interference has always existed and the parties always tend to put their friends in positions at the head of the state media."

RTI and CNA were in the past all directly controlled by the Kuomintang but, under President Lee Teng-hui (1988-2000), the state media were granted editorial independence and their funding was guaranteed as part of the GIO’s budget. Article 11 of the public television law says that public television "belongs to all citizens and its operations must be independent and autonomous, and free of any interference."

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