Fri, Feb 05, 2010 - Page 8 News List

Fear, lawsuits and self-censorship

By J. Michael Cole 寇謐將

When weighing the pros and cons of running a story that risks resulting in a lawsuit, even publishers who put journalistic duty ahead of financial considerations will be loath to jeopardize the company’s survival, especially in an age where most media are struggling to remain afloat.

What makes lawsuits even more undesirable for those targeted is that even if a court rules in favor of the accused, years of drawn-out libel action can be prohibitively expensive. When the accusing groups and firms are financially backed by a government, money is not an issue, as they can afford the legal fees, especially if the litigation serves a political objective.

The situation is slightly different in Taiwan, however, as retaining a defense lawyer can be cheaper than doing so in more litigious jurisdictions, and the maximum damage in libel cases usually does not exceed NT$1 million (US$31,000), the lawyer said. Court costs, meanwhile, are paid by the losing party.

A culture far less amenable to lawsuits than in, say, Hong Kong, she said, could also make lawsuits counterproductive for Chinese interests in Taiwan.

Still, increased contact between Taiwanese and Chinese in a highly politicized environment could nevertheless make lawsuits more appealing, and for many, even a maximum fine of NT$1 million may be sufficient to deter them from publishing allegations in a newspaper or discussing them on TV. Success elsewhere in silencing critics through such means could also encourage similar recourse here, despite the lower fees involved.

As Chinese start investing in Taiwan (in real estate, banks, commercial establishments, insurance companies and perhaps one day in the media), similar lawsuits could be launched against a slew of opponents including pan-green publications, academics, authors and pro-democracy activists writing about espionage in Taiwan, independence, Tibet, Falun Gong and other subjects that are unpalatable to the Chinese government. Even more worrying is the fact that, despite the devastating effect on freedom of expression, it would all be perfectly “legal,” as the Singaporean government has proven time and again in its reckless use of the legal system to force its detractors into bankruptcy.

In this brave new world of legalism taken to an extreme, outright censorship by the state is no longer necessary. No reporters have to be beaten up by police or criminal organizations for seeking the truth. But the repression is no less violent. Unless we get clear assurances by the legal system in Taiwan that it would not brook such practices, we have every reason to fear that a similar fate awaits us.

J. Michael Cole is an editor at the Taipei Times.

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