Fri, Nov 12, 2010 - Page 8 News List

Democracy, free speech under siege in Taiwan

By Ketty Chen 陳婉宜

Aristotle stated in Politics, “the basis for a democratic state is liberty.” Liberty is one of the most important attributes of a consolidated democracy, because the more opportunities citizens have to express, associate, discuss and represent a variety of political ideologies, the easier it is for the state to ascertain public preferences and correctly represent them in its policies. If the leadership of a government attempts to limit such freedom, that offers a chilling indication as to the government’s unwillingness to determine and adhere to the will of the people. The consequences of such an approach can be disastrous for the vitality of any democracy.

Public outrage ensued after a notice from the Ministry of Education surfaced requesting that National Taiwan University “reflect and improve the content of its PTT Gossip board.”

Minister of Education Wu Ching-ji (吳清基) vehemently denied that the ministry was attempting to interfere with freedom of speech on the Internet. However, Wu’s refusal to retract the notice in question, after the massive public outcry, reflects the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) administration’s position on stifling the most basic and universally recognized human rights — freedom for individuals to think, believe, speak, publish, inquire, associate and be informed.

The notice to the university and the legal threats an Internet user faced after making a spoof of a campaign video by KMT Taichung Mayor Jason Hu (胡志強), who is seeking the top job in the to-be-formed Greater Taichung special municipality, only added to the series of civil rights violations under President Ma Ying-Jeou’s (馬英九) administration.

There has been a clear erosion of the essential components that ultimately sustain a healthy democracy; components such as an individual’s freedom of expression and speech, academic freedom, institutional checks on the power of elected officials, an independent judiciary that is consistent and neutrally applies the rule of law to protect individual and group rights, and a vibrant civil society independent from the state.

A democratic culture is that of accommodation, cooperation and moderation. In a democratic system, conflicts between competing ideologies, ambition for political power and interests will always emerge. Controversies and conflicts in a democracy; however, are resolved in lawful and peaceful manners.

Wu tried to say that the notice was only routine and should not be considered a big deal. However, the language employed in the ministry notice demonstrated otherwise. It contained phrases like “to provide users with a ‘cleaner environment’ and “to investigate and act accordingly.”

If one takes these phrases at face value, they might not bear any special meanings. However, if scrutinized in the context of Taiwan’s authoritarian past, then the meaning is far more worrying. It is well documented that, during the White Terror, the Taiwan Garrison Command and other agencies of the state security apparatus routinely issued warnings with the aforementioned phrases and demanded investigations by other government and civilian agencies into those under suspicion of anti-government activities.

Threats of lawsuit, investigation, warnings and even arrests run completely contradictory to what Ma has promised to uphold — the rights guaranteed by the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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