Wed, Nov 26, 2008 - Page 8 News List

Put an end to meddling in freedom of assembly

By Pan Han-shen 潘翰聲

It has Become traditional for the annual year-end conference of the signatories to the UN Climate Change Convention and the Kyoto Protocol to be accompanied by parades, concerts and other activities worldwide to raise public awareness.

This year, the activities in Taiwan are scheduled for Dec. 6 and organizers include the Green Party Taiwan and the Taiwan Environmental Action Network (台灣環境行動網), among many others.

Unfortunately, when we applied for a permit to demonstrate, the Taipei City Government complicated the matter, while police intervened in an event promoting the activities.

The Assembly and Parade Law (集會遊行法) must be fundamentally amended to replace the requirement to apply for a rally permit with the option of notifying authorities.

On Nov. 19, our application to hold a demonstration on Ketagalan Boulevard was denied by the city government’s New Construction Office, which said that another group had already filed an application. We were not told who the group was so that we could negotiate the matter.

After an inquiry by city councilors the next day, we learned that no other application had been filed. A low-level agency responsible only for managing construction sites and roads was taking the liberty of reviewing the right to freedom of assembly.

Civil rights seem to have become something bestowed by the government as a favor, as it expands its administrative discretion. Civic groups without a political agenda are trampled on by overbearing bureaucrats who yield to any elected official.

Last Tuesday, we held a performance art event in front of Taipei 101. Although we had informed the local police precinct, police forced us to write down our personal information.

Last Friday, we displayed one black and two white balloons, symbolizing carbon dioxide, in front of Formosa Plastics Group’s (台塑) Taipei headquarters and demanded that President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) fulfill his campaign promise of levying an emissions tax and lowering income taxes.

Police first tried to turn off our microphone, but I demanded that freedom of speech be upheld and said that if we were too loud, they should act in accordance with the Noise Control Act (噪音管制法). After the event, the Songshan Police District threatened to ban our performance art events in the future.

Police have in recent years had a model for responding to this kind of small-scale event: Police hold up warning signs telling demonstrators to disperse. Protesters generally continue to yell slogans and wrap up their protest about 20 or 30 minutes after a third warning is given. This system avoids any conflict.

However, this harmony is often sacrificed when political or commercial interests are at stake. With the hawks gaining the upper hand since the visit of Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait Chairman Chen Yunlin (陳雲林), the fragile mutual trust between the police and public is close to collapse.

If the permit system is replaced by a compulsory, rather than voluntary, notification system, the government will still be able to restrain the voice of the public and weaker civic groups will be targeted by major political parties using the law as a tool.

Judging from the experience of environmental protection groups, the Wild Strawberries Student Movement has shown foresight by staging a sit-in protest at National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall without applying for a permit from the city government to avoid being humiliated.

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