A media orgy of speculation and rumors has made headlines on a daily basis since it was announced on May 23 that the chemical di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, or DEHP, had been found in food additives. The list of beverages, food and other products impacted by the scare continues to expand.
To address the problem, the Department of Health (DOH) announced that last Tuesday would be a “D-Day” to end the practice of adding any of six specified industrial-use chemicals to clouding agents, an emulsifier used in beverages and foods. The following day the department launched a nationwide investigation, requiring companies and food stalls to present certification that their products were free of the six banned chemicals.
At the heart of the scare are the companies that produced the chemicals and supplied them to countless other manufacturers. However, amid the nationwide crackdown on tainted products that originated from two suppliers of clouding agents — Yu Shen Chemical Co and Pin Han Perfumery Co — some in the media have had their attention diverted from the actual problem of tainted products to focusing on the owner of Yu Shen Chemical Co, Lai Chun-chieh (賴俊傑), and his son, a Taipei Times reporter.
For example, unsubstantiated allegations were made by Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Chiu Yi (邱毅) that Lai had donated heavily to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and that Lai’s son was being groomed to run as a DPP lawmaker in New Taipei City. The DPP held a press conference to dismiss Chiu’s remarks as “groundless lies.”
One again, personalities and politics have intervened to draw the focus away from the real issues: the extent of the contamination, the failure of the government’s health and safety standards system to detect the problem earlier and efforts to ensure there will not be a repeat of the problem.
The food scare crosses all political boundaries, just as it crosses ethnic and social lines. It also crosses administrative and government agency’s areas of responsibilities. Playing the blame game and scapegoating just to score a few political points or gain a few ratings points will not help resolve the problem or find a way to rectify the system.
Unfortunately, ignoring the real issue to focus on scandals and groundless speculation has become a common phenomenon among media outlets and political talk shows — all done while claiming to be defending free speech and the public’s right to know. Not only does this prevent the public from knowing anything, least of all gaining a better understanding of the truth behind the scare, it harms media credibility.
During the trial of former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and his wife Wu Shu-jen (吳淑珍) over bribery and corruption charges, all sorts of rumors were “reported” on political talk shows. Many commentators said they acquired the information from “credible sources,” including prosecutors, but a lot of the allegations were proven to be bogus. For example, Chang Yu-hua (張友驊) was sentenced to 35 days in jail by the Taipei District Court in 2007 for falsely accusing Chen of meeting former Presidential Office deputy secretary-general Chen Che-nan (陳哲男), who was involved in the Kaohsiung Rapid Transit Corp scandal.
Since the lifting of martial law, Taiwanese have enjoyed freedom of speech. Media outlets and commentators should exercise this freedom with caution, remembering that with this privilege and right comes responsibilities. They should provide the public with hard facts and insights through discussion and debate rather than report rumors and politicize stories.