Does Press Freedom Come with Responsibility?

Written by Lihyun Lin and Chun-yi Lee.

Image credit: IMG_0495-1 by Richy!/Flickr, license CC BY-NC 2.0

On November 18, 2020, the National Communications Commission (NCC) in Taiwan refused to renew the licence of CTiTV. This decision caused much protest from the opposition party, with the Kuomintang (KMT)’s high-pitch of ‘protecting press freedom.’ We found ironic how the KMT used Deng Nan-jung (鄭南榕) ‘s case as an example to indicate how the ruling party in Taiwan – the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) – intervened in press freedom and sacrificed Taiwan’s democracy. Deng was an editor of China News Analysis Freedom Era Weekly 《自由時代》, a democracy advocate, who burnt himself to death in defence of press freedom in 1989. It was right after lifting the then ruling party’s martial law period; the KMT’s authoritarian regime. Thirty years later, the decision of NCC’s suspension of CTiTV’s broadcasting license was packaged by the opposition party – the KMT – to intervene in press freedoms. In our short paper, we do not dwell on arguments about partisan’s debate. Instead, we would like to discuss the current understanding of press freedom, which has been fought and earned by many democratic fighters in the late 80s during Taiwan’s democratic consolidation.

Before we enter the discussion about press freedom, we need to present the case of CtiTV. This is a 24-hour news channel belonging to the owner of the Want Want Group, Tsai Eng-Ming. In 1992, Mr Tsai went to China to start a biscuit business and made a fortune with favours from the CCP. In 2006, Tsai returned to Taiwan to buy Taiwanese media to gain more support from the CCP. In 2006, Tsai acquired the terrestrial channel CTV, and in 2008, the China Times and CTiTV, one of the seven 24-hour satellite news channels shown in Taiwan’s cable systems. Tsai is a clear pro-China tycoon. In 2012, Tsai remarked: ‘not that many people could really have died in Tiananmen Square accident, it was not a massacre,’ causing a furious protest in Taiwan. The protest went even further when Tsai attempted to purchase one of the primary multiple system operations (MSOs) in Taiwan. In 2012, the anti-media monopoly gathered momentum, targeting Tsai’s concerning support for China, and attempted to purchase different media—newspapers, a terrestrial TV channel and cable TV channels—including MSO in Taiwanese media.

In 2014, CTiTV was given requirements for its licence renewals. According to the satellite broadcasting act, channel operators should obtain a licence from the regulator, the NCC, and renew it every six years. The external committee (composed of scholars and NGO groups) gave suggestions, and then the NCC committee made the final decision. CTiTV applied for reviewing its licence in 2014. The external committee collectively disagreed with these renewals because CTiTV violated the regulations by lacking the internal quality control mechanism to correct its journalism profession misconduct.

CTiTV has been notorious for blasting sensationalism and outright fake news. 

While it had a first broadcasting licence, from December 12, 2008, to December 11, 2014, CTiTV has recorded high violations (28 cases) with the total penalties topping NT$11.833 million (USD $ 31,131) (NCC report on CTiTV renewal of a licence, October 26, 2020). In the committee, the media reform groups argued that the NCC should not renew the licence because CtiTv used derogatory comments about female participants in the sunflower movement. Despite the disapproval from the external committee, the NCC in 2014, considered the issue of press freedom and thus approved the renewal, with the requirements that CTiTV must reform its internal quality control mechanisms.

According to a study commissioned by the NCC, during the Kaohsiung mayoral election, CtiTV gave 57 % of news time to cover the KMT presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu between November 17, 2018, and November 23, 2018. Furthermore, in prompting Han, CtiTV has spread misinformation in its news coverage. As an example of fake news, CtiTV once ran a report about Han’s campaign rally describing a “‘Phoenix Spreads its Wings’ cloud” as appearing in the sky over. The NCC ruled that this news story breached the principle of fact verification, representing a violation of Article 27 of the Satellite Broadcasting Act. Furthermore, the commission fined the news agency NT$400,000.

Other stories depicted the ruling DPP as a corrupt elite whose misadministration had sacrificed ordinary people’s interests and lost people’s hearts. For example, in another CtiTV programme called Political Gossip (大政治大爆卦), the host interviewed a pomelo farmer. The farmer said that the price of pomelo was so low last year that 2 million tonnes of the fruit had to be dumped into the Zengwen Reservoir (曾文水庫); other farmers standing near the interviewee said that they had not received the subsidies that they had applied for. According to the NCC, the host turned the interviewee’s statements into a “news report” without verifying the information’s authenticity. In another example, CtiTV broadcast a report implying that Representative to Singapore Francis Liang (梁國新) monitored Han’s movements during a trip to Singapore and reported them to the Democratic Progressive Party-led government.

Earlier on, during August 21, 2020, the external committee disapproved of its application because CTiTV still breached media regulations and failed to deliver internal quality control promises. According to the NCC’s media content regulation, the public may file complaints about media contents, and an independent content review committee would view the programs. The committee members would decide if the contents have violated regulations. In 2018, after receiving numerous complaints, the NCC had ruled that ten stories have violated fact-checking principles required by the satellite broadcasting law. The NCC fined the news agency NT$600,000 for again violating Article 27. By the end of 2020, CTiTV has been fined a total of NT$11.53 million (US$400,932) for 25 breaches of media regulations ranging from biased reporting to spreading misinformation—significantly more than other news channels

Let us return to our question at the start of this paper: Does press freedom come with responsibility? Our answer is Yes. We stand for press freedom, which means no political parties or government should intervene in the press’s content—however, with press freedom comes with the responsibility. The responsibility is that reporters should provide truthful and balanced reports. No matter the media platform, every reporter should be responsible for bringing audiences/readers as much accurate information as possible. This is the axiomatic core of press freedom. As students and receivers of media information, we do not naively argue that press content will not be intervened by the producer. The cases of reporting being influenced by certain partisan ideologies transpire in all democracies.

Nevertheless, we oppose CtiTV’s supporters use of ‘protect press freedom’ to protest its closure because the high percentage of fake news and repeated misconduct since 2014 till 2020, has distorted audience/readers’ understanding of the very principle of ‘press freedom.’ If the broadcaster has ultimately lost its conscience, by deliberately and repeatedly producing untrue news content, it needs to be regulated. Otherwise, under the name of press freedom, audiences and readers could receive all sorts of fabricated reports: press freedom becoming an alibi of political or monetary influenced agenda.

Lihyun Lin is Professor of Journalism at National Taiwan University.

Chun-yi Lee is Associate Professor at school of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham.

This piece is out of TSP December 2020 conference: Democracy In An Age of Globalization and Populism: Taiwan, UK and USA

One comment

  1. What does it mean to be free? Does it mean to be unrestricted? If the answer was ‘yes’, social life would be an endless unrelenting fight. I don’t know any society, contemporary or historical, that did not impose restrictions (rules and conventions) on its members. Obviously, unrestricted freedom is a dream that mankind never chose to make true.

    So, to be free just means to be free of specific restrictions. But how to differentiate between restrictions that do impinge on freedom and those that do not? Whimsical distinction, following fashion or momentary desires, would lead to unsatisfactory results. A systematic approach is needed. First, the boundaries of freedom must conform to the social framework of a society. A constitutional, rule-of-law, separation-of-powers democracy that aims to honour universal human rights requires other boundaries of freedom than an authoritarian, one-party, rule-by-law state. Second, rules on how to reconcile conflicting freedoms have to be derived from the social framework. Third, restrictions on freedom are permissible only if their benefits are deemed to outweigh the loss of the given up partial freedom. Again the weighing process is derived from the social framework.

    Mass media are the forth pillar in a separation-of-powers democracy. The role of the press is to control the power of the other pillars in the state by providing “truthful and balanced reports” based on “accurate [and comprehensive] information” on all relevant events and developments. In my opinion this is not just an arbitrary “responsibility”, it is the foundation of their freedom derived from the social framework.

    The press cannot fulfil its social role as forth pillar if it’s subjected to power, business or social interests. in a perfect democracy, reporters would not be influenced by political actors, business tycoons and celebrities. Unfortunately, reporters gain easy access to information by maintaining cosy relationships with political actors, media owners care about media reach for profits and celebrities are made by media. The consequences are biased reporting, sensationalism and social gossip. A regulator is needed to curtail the most egregious excesses at least. And the regulator must be independent to fulfil its task.

    In the case of CTiTV we would have to ask: Is the regulator truly independent? Are the reporters of CTiTV truly free of coercion by political actors and the media owner? Does CTiTV report truthfully and balanced based on accurate and comprehensive information? If the answer to any of these questions is ‘no’, based on substantial evidence, then neither the regulator nor the government infringed on CTiTV’s press freedom.

    However, a judgement of this kind is not easy. Considering CTiTV’s pomelo story, I feel a little lost. How is it possible to expect a truthful report in a programme that is named ‘Political Gossip’. First, this programme obviously is about opinion and not facts. Second, isn’t arbitrariness and lack of truth the defining feature of gossip? On the other hand, can the right to publish gossip be a legitimate part of press freedom?

    And on yet another hand, must people really be protected from the need to apply reasonable doubt on received information? Are people really so easily gullible that they believe any unsubstantiated or implausible assertion, that they even fall for transparent propaganda? Or does rather the education system fail on teaching critical thinking? Is the audience dumb? Or do the mass media just serve the dumb stories the audience craves?

    One last point to consider: Is revoking the license commensurate to the failures of CTiTV? Are there no other, more effective means to hold the media true to their role?


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