The TVBS controversy continues. ESWN had a great post on it the other day with a nice little chronology, and has added short blurb on Norman Leung, who was chairman of the Hong Kong Broadcasting Authority (go here). Consistent with his usual anti-Taiwan slant, ESWN omitted this and other information in his previous post on the topic. The Taipei Times covers the government’s claims on TVBS’ foreign ownership. ESWN writes:

The timeline intertwines the KRTC scandal with the government investigation of TVBS. It is hard not to see the events as being related. (UDN via Yahoo! News) Ever since the cable television license renewals in which one station was rejected (see Freedom of Press in Taiwan), it has been said that there is an atmosphere of intimation of the media by the government. A political science scholar has proposed: “怕者恆怕,不怕者恆不怕.” Those media that are afraid will be more afraid and continue to maintain their silence.

The idea that Taiwan’s media are afraid or maintaining silence is laughable. This is the usual paranoia from mainlanders about how Chen Shui-bian is an authoritarian and there is no freedom in Taiwan. ESWN hiliariously parrots this nonsense:

And this is an Internet world: if no media in Taiwan will report on the story, then “Deep Throat” can always speak to the media outside of Taiwan while shining the light on the new White Terror regime inside Taiwan.

The “new white terror regime…” [HOWLS WITH LAUGHTER]. Anyone who thinks the inept Pasuya Yao, head of the GIO, is the hand of a new White Terror regime is, frankly speaking, on crack. Some of us around here are old enough to have been on a White Terror blacklist, and anyone who opens a book can read about, say, the 1979 Kaohsiung Incident, in which 50 prominent democracy supporters were arrested and jailed and 15 magazines closed. Many people have forgotten that the KMT continued its ways even after the lifting of martial law, with Chiang Ching-kuo simply replacing martial law with a national security law under which jailing of democracy supporters and closing of anti-KMT media continued into the 1990s, with several suspicious deaths. Only the rise of real democracy parties in the 1990s put a stop to that. No, what’s happening isn’t some new White Terror.

Instead, the TVBS issue highlights three interrelated problems in Taiwan society. First, the media simply make up things, and do not bother with verification of claims. The result is that Taiwanese live in a society where claims are constantly asserted but not supported by evidence. I have already blogged on the evidence-free writing that is so common in Taiwan’s “better” media. This habit of visceral response without supporting evidence is normal and widespread in society.

This leads to the second problem: in the case of the media, how should their penchant for spreading unverified nonsense be handled? Sun Bin noted in the comments to the previous post on TVBS that individuals harmed could sue papers, and this would certainly be useful for at least some individuals. But the media here not only spreads nonsense, but is also frequently used to carry out personal and political vendettas. In a recent case at a university I know, one professor used a contact in the newspaper to have a completely false story printed about another professor he disliked. From the personal up to the political, this lack of ethics is pervasive in the Taiwan media.

There are two problems with Sun Bin’s suggestion that the media should be sued. First, ethics should not have to be an issue of “Be ethical or I’ll sue you.” The obvious corollary to that is “Since you didn’t sue me I must be doing OK” which is utter nonsense, and the even worse corollary that “Ethics are not necessary unless enforced by lawsuit.” Secondly, regardless of the actual response, anti-Taiwan types like ESWN will attack the government for being a White Terror regime. Had the DPP or GIO sued TVBS years ago, the anti-Taiwan crowd would have gone baying on about “the new White Terror” and “Chen’s authoritarianism” and press freedom. This reflexive lack of good faith, especially on the anti-Taiwan side, means that there is no action that the DPP could take that the anti-Taiwan forces would approve of, except collective suicide. The mere existence of a democracy and independence movement in Taiwan is intolerable to them.

Of course, it would be nice if the move against TVBS weren’t so obviously a response to its attacks on the DPP. It would nice if the government had moved against these habits 5 years ago instead of now, and could position this response to TVBS in the framework of a larger movement to create a responsible and vibrant media through reform of journalism education and the closing down of media outlets whose ethics are questionable or which are owned and operated by foreigners, especially by foreigners from countries that are out to destroy Taiwan’s democracy. But instead it is hard for anyone to look at this and miss the fact that the GIO’s response is essentially a reprisal.

This brings us to the third problem, the “culture of winking” (for lack of a better term) and the “culture of reprisal.” The government got itself in trouble over the all-too-common practice of not doing anything Until Something Happens. The first time TVBS promulgated nonsense it should have had the living daylights sued out of it, and again and again until it stopped. The moment the government became aware that TVBS was in violation of the media ownership laws, the government should have pounced on it. But instead, the government winked at the violations and let things roll on. In Chinese culture, law has little normative force. Instead, it is simply an additional club to be used when one is engaging in the common practice of reprisals against one’s enemies. Only then do violations suddenly become violations. Prior to that, they are ignored. The result is an Israeli vs. Palestinian cycle of mutual terrorism: the GIO moves against TV stations that violate the law, the media responds by attacking Yao, Yao responds by moving to close one of the TV stations, and so on, a cycle that has no identifiable beginning and no real end.

In the end, the current media crisis is not a White Terror problem, but a problem created by numerous interwining aspects of local culture. When TVBS promulgates bullshit, and Pasuya Yao moves against it, both parties are acting out “cultural” programming, not engaging in some tilt of authoritarianism vs. freedom of the press. The sad part is that the real loser here is not TVBS, but Taiwan’s civil society, still in its infancy, and likely to be choked in its cradle if things do not change.