Tue, Jul 29, 2003 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Secrecy must be based in law

The media was born to act as a check and balance on the government. This means frequent hostility between a government and the media. The Taiwan High Court last week sentenced former Power News (勁報) reporter Hung Che-cheng (洪哲政) to one-and-a-half years in prison for revealing military secrets. The conviction stemmed from his reporting on the Hankuang No. 16 military exercise in 2000, a Chinese spy ship that had shown up off the coast of Suao and the sabotage of a radar station in Linkou. The ruling has given rise to a debate between national security and freedom of speech.

It was true that Hung obtained classified documents from his friends in the military and wrote about it. His punishment, based on the Statute for Punishment of Betrayal of Military Secrets (妨害軍機治罪條例), seems reasonable. But the crux of the matter is what is the military's standard for defining secrets? Is that standard reasonable?

China is an authoritarian state and the scope of its military secrets could include almost anything -- from the health condition of state leaders to news about natural disasters to SARS cases. Like all other dictatorships in history, the breadth and depth of authoritarianism is proportionate to the scope of state secrets. The more dictatorial a government, the more state secrets it has. Of course, these secrets are defined by dictators or the ruling clique, not by the will of the public. Control over the power to define state secrets and the formulation of laws to punish people who leak such secrets is a characteristic of authoritarianism.

In a democratic country, there are fewer state secrets. The definition of "state secrets" in democratic countries is not legitimate unless approved by their legislatures. State secrets cannot be defined by the whims of government agencies, especially not military or intelligence agencies. How can we talk about human rights if such arbitrary definitions incriminate people at every turn?

Press freedoms cannot be without limit or else there would be anarchy. However, Taiwan's most potent weapon in its fight against Beijing is not the armed forces or weapons, but abstract concepts such as freedom and democracy. Freedom of speech is what China fears.

The Control Yuan has said in an investigation report that many military defectors have leaked secrets to Beijing and that China's satellite technology has exposed the nation's military facilities like so many naked bodies. This nation relies on the US for security and what links Taiwan to the US is the shared values of freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

The malicious leaking of state secrets, which harms national security, should certainly be punished. But the premise for such punishment is that the definition of state secrets must be regulated by law. It should not be unilaterally determined by the military.

A new State Secrets Law (國家機密法) will take effect on the first day of next year. The law will provide a legal basis for the definition and protection of state secrets. But this is not enough to resolve the conflict between government and media. If the Legislative Yuan can review and pass the government information disclosure bill (政府資訊公開法) in its next session, then the people will have an opportunity to demand that the government disclose information when necessary to safeguard the people's right to know.

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