“In general, we’ve made progress in human rights,” says lawyer and former political prisoner Yao Chia-wen, who is a senior adviser to the opposition Democratic Progressive Party. But recently, Yao says, freedom of the press is one of the civic rights that are eroding.
The placement of advertising as news is only the “tip of the iceberg,” says a report by Taiwan Media Watch, an independent group that monitors press freedom and journalism practices. Media Watch chairman Guang Chung-hsiang worries that, after two decades of democracy, the government’s “soft control” of the news media has replaced the direct control of the martial law era, although criticism of government has hardly abated.
So Huang’s protest struck a nerve. It caused waves of hand wringing in a society that is distrustful toward government and sensitized to the politics of nearly everything. Huang was reassured by the response. “So many colleagues have rallied to support me, and many journalism professors, too,” he told the Monitor two weeks after his resignation in mid December. One example of that support was a petition signed by more than 130 journalism and communications teachers from dozens of universities calling on the government to restore integrity and end the practice of “buying news” through “advertorials” or advertising copy disguised as news reports.
Taiwan’s premier, Wu Dun-yi, said on Dec. 29 that he would “reflect deeply” on the government’s failure to end this practice. He and other senior leaders acknowledged that their public relations methods were “wrong” and legislators said they were considering statutory prohibitions as a remedy.