Seemingly isolated incidents observed over a given period of time can, if they occur frequently enough, form a pattern. This is what appears to be emerging under President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration in terms of how it handles the right of ordinary people and the media to freely express their opinions.
Though the origins of this process can be traced back to the early days of the Ma administration, this month alone confronted us with a series of incidents involving government intrusion into the realm of freedom of expression.
First was a notice by the Ministry of Education to the Professional Technology Temple’s (PTT) Gossip Board, a popular online bulletin board hosted by National Taiwan University, calling on administrators to request that users tone down their political rhetoric to ensure a “cleaner” environment. Although Minister of Education Wu Ching-ji (吳清基) called the notice a “friendly reminder,” PTT users by the hundreds saw it differently, referring to it as the imposition of “martial law on the Internet.”
Then, less than a week later, came the outburst over comments by political commentator Cheng Hung-yi (鄭弘儀), who during a public event used “improper” language when referring to Ma and subsidies for Chinese students. What should have been a minor incident was instantly turned, both by the Ma administration and pan-blue media, into the public crucifixion of an individual who disagreed with the administration’s policies.
This was followed a few days later by a threat by Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Secretary-General King Pu-tsung (金溥聰) to take legal action against commentators on another political talk show — this time on Formosa TV (FTV) — to “defend the KMT’s reputation” over comments that “departed from the truth.”
As with the PTT board, a letter was sent to FTV’s management. Prior to this, former KMT chairman Wu Po-hsiung (吳伯雄) had filed a lawsuit against the Liberty Times (the Taipei Times’ sister newspaper) and King had sued yet another political commentator, Chung Nien-huang (鍾年晃).
All had, in one way or another, been discussing highly controversial rulings in corruption cases against former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁).
Upon unleashing its crusade against talking heads, the KMT maintained it was not targeting the media per se, but rather the “extreme stances” taken by the commentators, which could nevertheless lead those outlets to impose self-censorship.
All of this occurred days after Ma, publicly denouncing a court ruling that cleared Chen of bribery charges in one of the many cases against him, said the decision did not meet the “will” and “expectations” of the people.
Combining these remarks with the KMT accusing its detractors of “departing from the truth,” we see a political party that believes it has a prerogative on the “truth” and “reality.” Anyone who opposes that, therefore, is fair game for a “friendly reminder,” a soft authoritarian tool if ever there was one. Should this practice be allowed to continue, the chilling effect on the media’s role of helping shape, define and redefine reality could be serious.
Patterns aside, we wouldn’t have reason to worry so much were it not for the KMT’s decades-long history of assault on freedom of speech during the White Terror era. We also wouldn’t have reason to worry so much were it not for the Ma administration’s cozying up to an authoritarian regime in Beijing that has perfected the art of information control.