Thomas Jefferson, the third US president and the man who wrote the US Declaration of Independence, had it right when it came to the freedom of the press.
“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter,” Jefferson wrote to Edward Carrington, a Continental Congress delegate from Virginia in 1787, as the Founding Fathers were finalizing the structure of the American democracy.
With ideas like that, I would venture to say that Jefferson would be rolling over in his grave if he could witness what the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government and President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration are doing to press freedom.
With the recent publication of the Freedom House report on global press freedoms, the world has now been let in on a reality that the people of Taiwan have known about for the past year — that because of the KMT assault on the media, until recently the freest press in Asia, press freedom is in serious decline.
Here in Washington, Ma’s clear disdain for the press is having a poisoning impact on what had been, under former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) government, a cordial, symbiotic relationship between reporters and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office.
In the eight years of Chen Shui-bian’s administration, KMT-reared representatives C.J. Chen (程建人) and David Lee (李大維), and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) representative Joseph Wu (吳昭燮), held regular monthly press briefings with the Taiwanese Washington press corps that were open, on the record and no holds barred. They were in the form of “tea parties” and combined comradery and hard-nose question-and-answer sessions.
The point was that through the conversations, the people of Taiwan were kept informed about Washington’s policy and events and both sides developed relationships that helped in the media’s daily newsgathering.
Now, things are completely different under Representative Jason Yuan (袁健生), a long-time deep-blue partisan, who succeeded Wu last summer.
When Yuan did hold press briefings, they were largely or completely off the record, denying the press corps the right to report the facts back to Taiwan. The only reporter who did get stories from Yuan was Norman Fu (傅建中), a diehard KMT supporter who was the China Times correspondent in Washington for decades, and now lives in the area in retirement. Fu and Yuan are old buddies from their days in the KMT fold. The stories Yuan leaked to Fu were critical of the DPP or its leaders.
One Fu story from Yuan was so disrespectful of the other Taiwanese reporters that the press corps staged a boycott against Yuan in an incident whose bad feelings have not yet healed.
The Taipei Times was long blocked from attending the press briefings, on the pretext that the sessions were held in Chinese and the newspaper was in English. This despite the fact that Taipei Times has long had two Taiwanese interns perfectly capable and willing to translate for me everything said at the briefings.
Yuan compounded that affront recently by falsely claiming that American Institute in Taiwan chairman Raymond Burghardt complained to him about being repeatedly misquoted by the Taipei Times, an allegation roundly denied by Burghardt.
Since last October, Yuan has imposed a virtual news blackout, steadfastly refusing to meet the Washington press corps by jettisoning the monthly tea party tradition, which was established in a bipartisan fashion by his predecessors.
Meanwhile, the Central News Agency is being decimated with the return to Taiwan of one of its two reporters here at the end of the month. The office has traditionally fielded a staff of two or three.
The Washington office has been warned by CNA bosses in Taipei to promote Ma’s policies and play up stories about Washington personae who praise Ma’s actions. In addition, they are reminded to skip or downplay any story that criticizes China.
It would do Taiwan’s freedom and democracy well if the KMT and Yuan were to bone up on their Jefferson.
“The only security of all is a free press,” Jefferson wrote. “The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.”
Or: “Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.”
Taiwan’s democracy is too valuable and hard-fought to allow the KMT to pervert it now.
Charles Snyder is the former Washington correspondent for the Taipei Times.
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