Fri, Mar 29, 2002 - Page 12 News List

Punish the leakers, not the media

By Paul Lin 林保華

In a move that has prompted heated debate about national security and freedom of the press, prosecutors raided the offices of Taiwan's Next magazine (壹週刊) after it published articles containing a large amount of classified information about secret accounts at the National Security Bureau (NSB). There are no easy answers in this debate, because threats to both national security and press freedom can vary in magnitude and must be analyzed on a case-by-case basis. It is truly regrettable, however, that this incident involves Next magazine.

Although Next's sister organizations in Hong Kong, Apple Daily (蘋果日報) and the Hong Kong Next, often provoke disputes with their "paparazzi" style, they have the courage to insist on freedom and democracy and the right to offend China. For this reason, they have been forbidden from reporting in China, and Beijing strongly discourages companies from placing advertisements with them.

In the current incident in Taiwan, their offices were raided because they published these documents, but I'm confident that the prosecutors are not really after the media. Rather, they hope that by means of the raid they will uncover the source of the materials and identify the accomplices of Liu Kuan-chun (劉冠軍).

There was in fact no need for them to confiscate printed matter, because no restrictions were placed on printing and distribution. For this reason, the boss of Next Media Ltd, Jimmy Lai (黎智英), who was in Hong Kong when the incident occurred, expressed his continuing confidence in Taiwan's security, freedom and open democratic society, and he immediately returned to Taiwan to deal with the incident's aftermath.

Generally speaking, when the media obtain an exclusive report, their first consideration is the public's right to know. Issues of national security may also be considered, but not as thoroughly as they would be by government. This is especially true when there appears to have been malfeasance. On occasions where this is the case, the media sees itself as exercising its oversight role as the fourth estate. For that reason, the authorities should strive to avoid taking action against the media.

In the US during the Vietnam war, there were cases of the media publishing classified documents from the Pentagon. At the time, this was considered to have damaged national security. Ultimately, however, with the Vietnam War occurring half a world away from America's shores, the courts finally decided in favor of the press.

Of course there are differences between Taiwan and the US. The US is a superpower. Not even last year's Sept. 11 terrorist attacks succeeded in shaking the foundations of the country. Taiwan, on the other hand, is like a lonely vessel floating on a vast sea. It is a much more fragile entity. China, that domineering power, regularly whips up storms over the Taiwan Strait and national security issues are unable to withstand the onslaught. The media should keep these factors firmly in mind when publishing information relating to national secrets.

In fact the main issue in this case is not the media at all, but the motive of the person who leaked the information to the media.

During the KMT era, when Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) and Lien Chan (連戰) were travelling abroad to promote "substantive diplomacy," their trips were often revealed in the media even before they had begun. As a result, China brought pressure to bear on the countries visited by Lee and Lien.

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