Fri, Feb 05, 2010 - Page 8 News List

Fear, lawsuits and self-censorship

By J. Michael Cole 寇謐將

Last year, a retired intelligence officer and a journalist co-authored a book about foreign espionage in Canada. In one section of the book, the authors indirectly referred to a locally based organization that lobbied for a certain foreign government. They claimed that this organization may have received money from that foreign government’s intelligence agencies to pressure Ottawa into supporting a bill that condemned another government for crimes committed in a war more than half a century ago.

Soon after the book was published, some local newspapers carried reviews of it and a former member of parliament (MP) linked it on his blog. Eventually, said organization filed lawsuits against the authors, their publisher, the newspapers that carried the review and the owner of the newspapers, as well as the former MP.

As this is an ongoing case, it would be unwise to discuss the matter in detail. We will also refrain from naming the organization or the parties involved in this article. Suffice it to say that in the mid-1990s, one of the authors played a prominent role in the drafting of a report — nixed by the government for what were ostensibly political/economic reasons — on infiltration of the government he worked for by the intelligence apparatus of a foreign government.

In a recent conversation, the author informed me that in the present case, rather than fight in court, most of the parties involved are believed to have decided to settle out of court. Furthermore, the publisher has agreed to recall the book and to republish it, minus 28 “contentious” lines.

For the sake of argument, let us imagine that the foreign government mentioned above is China.

Given the influx of Chinese investment in Taiwan that is expected to follow the signing of an economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) and other financial agreements between Taipei and Beijing, it is not infeasible that Chinese investors, firms, academics and lobby organizations would eventually turn to similar tactics in Taiwan to censor critics in the media and the publishing industry.

There are currently no restrictions on Chinese individuals or companies to file libel or slander lawsuits in Taiwan. While the introduction of Chinese capital or establishment of Chinese firms in Taiwan would not necessarily make lawsuits more likely, a Taiwan-based lawyer told me during a telephone interview on Jan. 20 that it would be more convenient for them to do so.

Fear of lawsuits has a tremendous muzzling effect. In fact, plans for a far more thorough expose of the affair were thwarted after the legal implications of doing so compelled a reassessment of the viability of the project. This also explains the lack of details provided about the case.

What makes lawsuits such attractive tools for individuals, groups, firms and governments who do not want information to be made public is that they confer a veneer of legitimacy. This recourse to the legal system to censor one’s opponent is no less effective than outright censorship of the type seen in China and Singapore, for example. As it could threaten the financial survival of individuals and corporations, a party that has shown its willingness to use that instrument can ruin its detractors and, in doing so, pre-empt criticism by other individuals and publishers.

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