In the aftermath of Sanlih Entertainment Television employee Chu Wen-cheng (朱文正) being wrongly arrested and injured by Taipei District Court police while covering a court appearance by Chao Chien-ming (趙建銘), all major TV channels have joined together in vehemently condemning the police actions as a violation of the freedom of the press.
The excessive force used by police during the incident and the threat that such behavior poses to journalists and photographers doing their job is certainly grounds for harsh criticism. Taiwanese society should support Chu's decision to sue the police for misconduct, injury and repression of his freedom.
However, this should also be considered from another angle. What role have the media, and especially television news channels, played in the explosive scandals surrounding Chao?
First, because of the major political and social repercussions of the scandal, the media should be praised for their determined pursuit of the story. This is especially true considering that Chao, as well as other high-level government officials, have not provided helpful answers or complete information. Journalists have been put at a disadvantage by officials' often patronizing, coy or arrogant attitudes, as well as the deliberate protection given by governmental and even non-governmental organizations, such as National Taiwan University Hospital. The frustrations of reporters are understandable.
However, this atmosphere didn't develop overnight. Criticism that news channels' reports are inflammatory, confrontational, petty, misleading and exaggerated are not unfounded. The most extreme manifestations of this have been in the coverage of Chao's housekeeper Lin Hsiu-jen (
The dogged pursuit of Lin and the bewildered children is problematic from the standpoint of professional ethics, and represents a lack of professional competence. The media have clearly not found an effective way to break through the government's deliberate deceptions and withholding of information. They have been unable to get to the heart of the matter and provide credible information to viewers who crave to know the truth.
Under these conditions, Lin, who is not protected by the system, has become a sacrificial lamb. She has also become a major, although not terribly meaningful, source of news, and even an object of ridicule. How can President Chen Shui-bian's (陳水扁) family be so heartless as to subject one of its innocent employees to a media frenzy because it doesn't want to face the media itself? But the media is also to blame for its inhumane hounding of Lin.
Front-line journalists and photographers experience pressure and are at times themselves victims, and news bosses must share some of the blame. Aren't they the ones who order their reporters into harm's way to cover stories? Can forcing hardship and danger on reporters be ethically justified? It's a question that news bosses should rationally assess.
Media bosses should search their consciences. There have been many instances of police using excessive force in recent years. If the victim this time didn't work for a TV station, would all of the channels have spent so much time and energy reporting on it, and would they have put the same pressure on the courts and police?