Friday, February 13, 2009

The NCC: Helping to Trample Over Press Freedom?

The NCC: Helping to Trample Over Press Freedom?
China Times editorial
A Translation
February 9, 2009

The National Communication Commission (NCC) has just issued a new draft of its satellite radio and television law. National Communication Commission Chairperson Bonnie Peng was the odd person out. She was unable to prevent other members of the commission from passing the new law. All she could do was write a lengthy dissenting opinion.

Chairperson Bonnie Peng's dissent addressed freedom of speech and freedom of press issues. The new satellite radio and television law seems regressive, a throwback to a time when the Government Information Office's word was law. Judging by the revised draft law, current NCC members have a very different view of freedom of expression than previous NCC members. Back then the Grand Justices were concerned that apportioning membership on the NCC based on the political composition of the legislature was harmful to the independence of broadcast industry regulatory agencies. They declared that the establishment of the NCC unconstitutional. Now however, the NCC shares the Executive Yuan's attitude about commission appointments, and the administrative agencies' attitude about regulation. One can only wonder whether the Grand Justices feel a sense of frustration. If the Legislative Yuan passes the bill into law, the Grand Justices should review the law for violating constitutional guarantees of free speech.

Our concerns are hardly unfounded. The revised law contains serious threats to free speech. One. Article 21 authorizes regulatory agencies to rate radio and television programs, in addition to advertising. The slightest mistake on the part of the media, and regulatory agencies can use the rating process as a pretext to censor radio and television program content. A major firewall has already been breached.

Two. The law prohibits the broadcasting of news articles that have not been checked for accuracy. But the broadcasting of real-time radio and television programs can hardly wait while government agencies check the facts. The probable result will be that no news whatsoever can be broadcast. If the regulatory agency establishes its own standards, it could create a situation in which "those who obey may broadcast, but those who don't will be silenced." The chilling effect can easily be imagined.

Three. The law regulates product placement. This may not be a bad thing in itself. But Article II, paragraph 13 defines "product placement" too loosely, as "certain perspectives," and "the dissemination of information." This has far-reaching implications, and allows government agencies to regulate anything, to meddle in anything, and to be everywhere.

Four. The law mandates a so-called "right of reply." It expressly stipulates that "parties concerned" or "parties affected" can demand that the news story be censored or corrected. If the broadcaster refuses to address the matter as requested, the "parties concerned" or "parties affected" may file for an injunction. If the courts fail to understand their duty to defend freedom of speech, they may contribute to the suppression of free expression.

Five. Article 45 of the law stipulates that regulatory agencies may impose heavy fines on news sources who fail to verify the facts. This is a formal declaration that the era of broadcast news censorship, using "fact checking" as a pretext, has arrived. This constitutes control of editorial commentary. Don't think otherwise. Editorial content is based on fact. To demand that news reports must be absolutely true before they can be published, does not control only factual reporting, it also controls editorial commentary. For regulatory agencies to monitor the news means that freedom of the press on Taiwan has taken a giant step backward.

Six. Article 47 of the law authorizes regulatory agencies to inspect all program content and impound it if they see fit. The law originally applied only to advertising, but now news and other programming have are included. Scenes of police impounding contraband publications may soon reappear.

The morass of provisions in the revised law regarding "rights protection" and "penalties," authorizing regulatory agencies to clamp down, makes its intention perfectly clear. Such a comprehensive control mechanism brings back memories of the old Government Information Agency and Information Bureau.

The Criminal Code includes laws against defamation. The Civil Code provides for tort damages. The draft law implies that the court's burden isn't heavy enough already. Even more puzzling is the provision for injunctions, which originate in Anglo-American law, and are a discretionary power reserved for judges. Injunctions should only be handed down by the courts. Regulatory agencies may not abuse their authority clamping down on free expression. The draft law has been added to the court's power to issue injunctions. The NCC has been authorized to impound radio and television programs on its own initiative. The long arm of the state now extends into the electronic media. The courts are not intervening to prevent the government from abusing its power. They are behaving like the government's accomplices. Chairperson Bonnie Peng championed press freedom all her life. No wonder she spent the New Year's holiday writing her dissenting opinion.

If such a draft law passes, Chairperson Bonnie Peng will probably resign. Only such a gesture can express her outrage. For the sake of Bonnie Peng, who knows that the draft law must not pass, For the sake of free speech on Taiwan, individuals of conscience must sound the alarm!

中國時報  2009.02.09












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