With disturbing reports emerging in recent months of government meddling in the media and judiciary, it may be that our greatest protection against eroding freedoms and justice is public indignation. When checks and balances within the government fail to prevent unconstitutional interference, perhaps only embarrassment will convince the government to keep its hands to itself.
For this reason, the recent outcry over allegations of government meddling is cause for hope; a glance at the situation across the Taiwan Strait illustrates just this.
When Chinese newscaster Chen Yang (陳揚) made a joke about President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and social instability on TV earlier this month, he probably was not expecting to be sacked — which, according to media reports, is precisely what happened.
But in China, Chen’s removal from his show is nothing unusual: just one more ruined career to toss on the heap of media victims. Editors and journalists are frequently fired from their jobs and news columns or entire newspapers vanish overnight. There will likely be no complaints from fans of the Cantonese-language show, Another Look at the Daily News, aired in Guangzhou.
By contrast, in Taiwan, when a legislative committee passed a resolution last month to give the government item-by-item control over the budget of the Taiwan Broadcasting System (TBS), employees and the public loudly protested what they felt was an attempt to censor program content. A demonstration outside the legislature against the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT)-proposed resolution earlier this month reportedly drew thousands of participants.
With a KMT majority in the legislature, public pressure will be crucial to discourage encroachment on the editorial independence of TBS.
A key difference that has emerged between Taiwan and China since the democratization of the former is the Chinese public’s silence in the face of state interference — a luxury Taiwan’s government will hopefully never again enjoy.
Although China’s Constitution protects freedom of speech, authorities feel confident about flouting the rules with little or no pretense. The Chinese government stifles any discussion of its meddling in the media through a combination of fear and propaganda: Those who recognize the transgressions are too intimidated to talk, while others see nothing disturbing about hard-handed tactics when the “greater good” is taken into account.
This has long been a winning recipe from China’s point of view, and although the voice of dissent there has become distinctly bolder — and will hopefully one day unravel the country’s authoritarian regime — it is a system that remains firmly in place.
Decades after the death of Chinese leader Mao Zedong (毛澤東) and the end of the Cultural Revolution, citizens still function as informants dedicated to helping the government uncover and punish “subversive” thought. Two recent cases of university lecturers recorded by students and turned in to police for expressing dissenting opinions are clear examples of this twisted sense of civic duty.
Our real civic duty as we look ahead is quite the opposite — encouraging free thought and turning the lens of our skepticism on the government’s actions. Thankfully, the past few months have left no doubt that this skill is thriving in Taiwan.