Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom

TAIWAN: Media Fights Propaganda Masked as News

Dennis Engbarth

TAIPEI, Jan 31 2011 (IPS) - A coalition of journalist and civic organizations is waging a campaign to rid the Taiwan media of government propaganda masquerading as news, and signs are that the campaign has taken “the first steps” towards victory.

The coalition said it will continue protesting government’s practice of “news buying” and the sharp rise in “embedded advertising” by agencies of the People’s Republic of China.

In mid-January, Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan amended the Budget Law to prohibit the use of government funds to “buy” news. The government also issued an executive order requiring that official policy explanations in media “be identified as advertisements and news as news.”

These measures came in response to protests by media and civic groups against the improper classification of government advertisements promoting its policies and programmes in the media.

“The sources of such ‘reports’ are left deliberately vague and terms like ‘special section’ or ‘supplement’ are used to make it hard for readers to tell whether they are news or advertisements,” said Taiwan Rural Front spokeswoman Lin Lexin.

The controversy comes amid Taiwan’s decline in a survey on news freedom around the world conducted by the democracy watchdog Freedom House. In 2008, Taiwan placed first in Asia, but fell to eighth place last year. Taiwan also ranked 23rd globally in 2008, falling to 47th last year.

In December, concerned media and civic groups formed the Alliance to Oppose Government News Buying, composed of the Alliance for Taiwan Journalists (ATJ), the Taiwan Media Watch (TMW) and other media monitoring groups.

These groups came together following the resignation of senior China Times reporter Dennis Huang Cheh-pin, who also wrote an emotional message protesting government embedded advertising and news buying by private enterprises.

Also in the wake of Huang’s appeal, 130 journalism and broadcasting professors signed a petition against “government news buying,” while 200 human rights, environmental, social and civic reform organizations issued a statement of support.

Advertising and propaganda in the guise of news has long been one of the most serious problems in Taiwan media. But this practice, referred to as “news buying” or “embedded advertising,” has drawn protests from civic groups because of the extent to which taxpayer funds are used.

A report by the media monitor Foundation for the Advancement of Media Excellence released January 24 cited 378 examples of “government news buying” in Taiwan newspapers in 2010. The number excludes “special reports” or television or radio “advertorials”.

The report said the 2010 figure was more than double that of 2009. It cited as examples bylined special reports promoting “rural revitalization”, the necessity for an eighth naphtha cracker complex, and the safety of nuclear power. Another example was the report defending President Ma Ying-jeou’s campaign to sign an “economic cooperation framework agreement” with mainland China.

Also included in last year’s figure are 119 examples of advertising by agencies of the People’s Republic of China, such as provincial and city governments, state industrial zones and official investment promotion agencies.

Among these were three full pages of “special reports” promoting China’s Shaanxi Province in the vernacular China Times daily newspaper on September 13, 2010. The publication coincided with the arrival of PRC Acting Shaanxi Governor Zhao Zhengyong and a major business delegation on a seven-day visit.

In December, the Alliance to Oppose Government News Buying demanded that government and political parties cease embedded advertising and news buying. It also called for amendments to laws on the budget, government procurement, civil service, and satellite, radio and television broadcasting to explicitly ban the use of central or local government funds for any form of embedded advertising.

The alliance also demanded full implementation of the Government Information Freedom Act.

On Jan. 13, the Legislative Yuan approved a revision to the Budget Law requiring that “policy guidance” statements by government agencies, state enterprises or government-backed foundations be clearly identified as “advertisements.” The amendment also banned the use of government funds to “buy” news.

Mainland Affairs Council Vice-Chairman Liu Teh-hsun said embedded marketing by PRC agencies was also banned in the wake of the revisions to the Budget Law.

“It is important for the government to respond to new expectations in society,” Government Information Office Minister Johnny Chiang Chi-cheng told IPS.

Reacting to criticisms the revisions were inadequate, Chiang said the amendments to the Budget Law were “a first step,” but that “in legislating laws regarding matters such as freedom of speech or news freedom, it is necessary to take some time and have comprehensive consideration.”

“We have still seen examples of apparent government embedded advertising since Premier Wu Den-yih issued the government’s new guidelines and will need to see how much restraint they exercise on government agencies,” said ATJ President Yang Wei-chung.

Yang added that the revision to Article 62 of the Budget Law was “too loose” and noted that it only restricted the activities of foundations that were more than 50 percent state-owned. Yang said the alliance wanted the prohibition to apply to foundations which received 5 percent or more of their funding from the government, and that stronger legal action was needed.

Citizen Congress Watch Executive Director Ho Tsung-hsun said the alliance and supporting civic groups still planned to organize a march in Taipei on March 20 to “oppose buying of news by the government” and launch a mass movement against “the distortion of the media environment.”

The alliance also urged news media owners to “set self-disciplinary guidelines,” publicly indicate the sources of government advertising, and “cease demanding that reporters engage in business cooperation activities.”

“The fundamental issue remains whether the Taiwan news media itself can uphold journalistic professionalism and autonomy and the principle of ‘not selling’ news to either government or business interests,” said FAME Executive Director Lu Shih-hsiang.

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