For a government accused by opposition and rights advocates of reverting to an authoritarian past, the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has been surprisingly inept at image control, a situation all the more strange given the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) strong ties with the media.
Starting with the barbed wire and barricades that preceded the arrival in Taiwan of Chinese envoy Chen Yunlin (陳雲林), then continuing with police clashes with demonstrators protesting against the visit, critics of the KMT government were given plenty of ammunition to advance claims that the Ma administration is whittling away at democratic principles and what exists of due process.
Other faux pas — such as Ma walking away from Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) deputy caucus whip Chiu Yi-ying (邱議瑩) as she lay on the ground, and KMT legislators crowing over the detention of former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) without charge last Tuesday — also blemished the government’s image and raised questions about its ability to maintain a facade of respectability.
What could have been passed off as carelessness shifted to incompetence on the night of Chen Shui-bian’s arrest, with prosecutors gratuitously handcuffing the former president and failing to foresee that the media-savvy Chen would turn the occasion into a classic camera moment. Minutes later, images of a handcuffed former president shouting injustice and political persecution were circulated around the world, threatening to downgrade Taiwan’s image to that of a banana republic.
Many people overseas were oblivious to the mass demonstrations and clashes that accompanied Chen Yunlin’s visit, but few have not seen the final pictures of the former president before he was taken away. The impact of that image — and the worrying questions it raises about the KMT administration — cannot be underestimated.
If the KMT’s detractors are justified in fearing a slide toward authoritarianism, image is the next thing the party must work on. And there are signs that the authorities are becoming more sensitive to the ability of reporters and photographers to access all areas.
After several days on a presumed hunger strike, the former president was taken from his detention center in Taipei County to hospital for a checkup. Once again, the media rushed to broadcast images of an emaciated and perhaps ailing former leader, which — added to other images of hunger-striking DPP leaders — would have infuriated DPP supporters and fueled tensions.
The wait was anti-climactic. The former president was barely visible. As a precaution, and against the longstanding practice of parading patients before the media both outside and inside hospital grounds, the ambulance backed into the building, from where Chen was unloaded, depriving the throng of crucial images and leaving it with bland pictures of ambulances, police cars and people milling around.
It is extremely unlikely that this transpired out of respect for the former president’s privacy or his rights as a likely defendant.
Media outlets have benefited from callous disregard for the dignity of ordinary people and the rights of defendants for many years. The irony is that Chen Shui-bian’s protest has offered the authorities an object lesson in image management that may well result in more regulation — and not necessarily for the better. With the National Communications Commission shutting down unlicensed radio stations rather than engaging the issue of how the media compromise the rights of people in its stories, it can be assumed that changes will take place with politics strictly in mind.