Wed, Mar 27, 2002 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Freedom brings responsibilities

Strange as it may seem, Chu Mei-feng (璩美鳳) and the National Security Bureau have something in common. Both have gained worldwide fame as a result of Taiwan's appetite for voyeurism.

A hidden camera captured Chu and her married lover in a very private act. Scoop Weekly obtained the steamy footage and bundled VCDs with its cover-story issue on Chu. The wanna-be legislator quickly became a household name in Taiwan and abroad, thanks to the Internet. When prosecutors searched Scoop Weekly's offices and confiscated copies of the controversial issue, the magazine protested that the government was suppressing press freedom.

Details about Taiwan's national security maneuvers over the past decade received a similar airing before the people of Taiwan and the international community, after someone in the National Security Bureau apparently leaked classified documents about the bureau's secret accounts. When prosecutors searched Next magazine's offices and printing plant, confiscating copies of the issue carrying articles about those accounts, the magazine also claimed that press freedom was being impinged.

Both incidents triggered huge debates over balancing press freedom and the right to privacy and national security concerns. But the debates cannot be boiled down to a question of whether the right to privacy or national security is more important than press freedom. The question should be what are the choices for reporters, editors and the government when these two values collide.

In Chu's case, her affair with a married man may have offended many people's sense of decency, but that does not negate the fact that she was a victim of the worst kind of voyeurism. Scoop Weekly and those who posted footage of her on the Internet abused her right to privacy in her own home.

The media's release of classified documents detailing diplomatic channels and maneuvers between Taiwan, Japan and the US during the 1996 missile crisis has effectively cut off all those channels and exposed intelligence officers to personal danger. Publishing reports critical of a government's actions are one thing. Publishing details that could cost lives is another.

How to deal with freedom of information issues and privacy issues is something that every democracy has to deal with. Every government would like to keep its missteps from public view, just as it is a rare person who is always willing to proclaim "I goofed." But not every government secret is a matter of national security. Finding the right balance is not an easy task, for either a government or the media.

Look at the debate in the US when the New York Times and Washington Post published the Pentagon Papers. The public good was served when the US government failed in its effort to suppress the papers' publication. Reporting on public policy issues or scandals, however, is one thing, naming undercover operatives is another. Responsible media are willing to not to disclose names or details that might harm national security. The cut-throat competition to break a story cannot be used as an excuse for shoddy reporting or editing.

The KMT used the Taiwan Garrison Command (警備總部) and the Publishing Law (出版法) as cudgels to suppress freedom of speech. Perhaps because it was repressed for so long, Taiwan's media failed to develop a true sense of professional ethics. This newspaper believes that press freedom cannot be toyed with or restricted. However, just as that freedom brings with it many privileges, it also imposes many responsibilities. It is clear that just as the government erred too often in the past with its restrictions on the press, the media has frequently erred with its flagrant violations of privacy and balanced reporting. If the media wants to enjoy its long-sought freedom, it must be willing to accept the responsibilities that come with it.

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