Monday, August 09, 2010

Media wars

Officials at the US-based Freedom House on Monday [early May] denied the watchdog was angry at the Liberty Times over its coverage of a draft report on press freedom in Taiwan released last week.

Want Want China Times Group’s CtiTV on Saturday accused the Liberty Times of “politicizing” the report in a front page article on Friday, in which it provided excerpts both in the original English version and a Chinese translation. The Chinese-language Apple Daily also ran a story on the report, as did the Taipei Times and Agence France-Presse.

Singling out the Liberty Times, CtiTV’s Washington correspondent Zang Guohua (臧國華) alleged that the Freedom House was “not happy with the paper after it used the report as a tool for political battle” and implied that the Liberty Times had overemphasized concerns raised by Freedom House over possible changes in the editorial line at the China Times following the takeover by Want Want Group in November 2008.

Zang’s report included excerpts of an interview with Karin Karlekar, managing editor of the “Freedom of the Press Survey” at Freedom House, in which she said of the Liberty Times article: “It is very troubling. We’re trying to describe a situation as best we can and raise issues of concern, but it is annoying to be used like this as part of a bigger political battle.”

In a telephone interview with Sarah Cook, the researcher who wrote the section of the report on Taiwan, Zang asked her if she had spoken with Want Want chairman Tsai Eng-meng (蔡衍明).

"No,” Cook said.

Pressed as to whether she had spoken with anyone else at the China Times, she said she preferred not to go into details of the sources used to write the report.

Asked about the CtiTV report on Monday, Freedom House officials said they were quoted out of context.

Moreover, while they denied having any major problems with the coverage given to the report by the Taipei Times or the Liberty Times, they repeated general editorial “concerns” about the China Times.

In separate telephone interviews from their New York offices, however, Karlekar and Cook both stressed there had been no major decline in press freedom in Taiwan.

Cook sent copies of her draft report on Taiwan to some newspapers last month, but the final report is not expected until next month.

“We have released draft reports for years. In past years, as happened this year, the media has wanted to pick up quotes from the draft report and we don’t have a problem with that," Karlekar said.

“The date of publication by the Liberty Times and the Taipei Times was not an issue at all. They published after the embargo, there was no problem," she added.

“The only trouble I had with the Liberty Times was that it wasn’t mentioned this was a draft report. And it seems that the bits concerning the China Times were the main bits that were quoted. I would be troubled if they were trying to imply the China Times was the reason for a big decline in press freedom,” she said.

I tried to make it clear there had not been a big decline in press freedom in Taiwan. The score remained almost the same as last year. The reason for any deterioration was not particularly the China Times. It was a pretty big report and the China Times was only one part of the report,” she said.

Moving on to the CTiTV program in which she was interviewed on camera, Karlekar said: “I have just looked at the CTiTV report and the bits that are in English are pretty selective. They must have had me on camera for about 45 minutes and so it was pretty easy for them to pull out the few bits that they felt would help them, that would help their story the most.”

“What I was trying to say, what I did say during the interview, was that I was not the person writing the report, that I was not sure what evidence they had, or did not have, of a change in editorial policy at the China Times. But we had contact with a number of sources and some of them had raised this as an issue,” she said. “That is why it was in the report as being a continuing issue of concern — that is, a potential change in editorial policy at the China Times. It’s not that we had hard evidence of it or that we had done content analysis, but some of our sources had raised this as an issue. And statements made by the head of the China Times group also raised concern and had become an issue.”

Karlekar said that while no major changes were expected in the final report on Taiwan, comments and criticism of the draft report would be taken into consideration.

Cook, who has visited Taiwan on a number of recent occasions, said that the China Times did not receive a copy of her draft report because “I had a contact at the China Times, but for some reason whenever I followed up with that person to send them drafts or information, I never received a response.”

"In the end I sent the draft to the Taipei Times and to a range of people that I know are interested in these issues. I feel badly that it seems there was some kind of discriminatory act here, but it was very much unintentional,” she said.

On the CTiTV interview, Cook said: “We do feel that there was some misleading, misquoting, out-of-context use of what we had said in the TV interview.”

“When I sent the draft to the Liberty Times and the Taipei Times, I had every intention that they would be able to quote it as it is and other than the fact that it could have been emphasized a little bit more that this was a draft report I don’t think we have serious concerns about the way it was covered,” she said.

“It was a fairly fair portrayal of the content of the report,” she said.

She said that Freedom House hoped that news stories about the draft report on Taiwan would emphasize the reasons for the small decline in press freedom over the last year.

“The reasons for the decline were circumstances other than the specific example of the China Times. And from that perspective the Taipei Times article was more even handed and reflective of what we would have liked to have gone out than the Liberty Times. They emphasized more of the China Times angle and that — in terms of the numerical scores and stuff like that — wasn’t something that contributed to the decline,” she said.

"Before the final report comes out, there will be more fact checking, she said, but “our intention is to put out in the public domain what we see as being an accurate reflection of the analysis we have done and not to change it one way or the other because it may upset particular individuals or entities,” she said.

We talked to a range of different people and looked at a range of different sources of information, including the comments that the owner of the China Times made himself to the media. Comments like that, coming from the owner of a media outlet, raise eyebrows,” Cook said.

“That was part of it, but there were other issues relating to the actual content of the newspaper and concerns that people were raising. Part of it was that concerns were being raised and we don’t have the resources at the moment to do a thorough content analysis," she said. “But we do feel it is important. We did not go in looking to raise concerns about the China Times. But when there are comments like that, and you have some of the other concerns expressed, and some of the other incidents that occurred during the year, we felt it was very important to reflect that. Again, it was concerns and not necessarily conclusive,” Cook said.

This article, scheduled for publication sometime in May, was eventually cancelled.

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