Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Hsieh Kuo-liang (謝國樑) initiated legal proceedings against Newtalk Web site head Su Tzen-ping (蘇正平) and journalist Lin Chao-i (林朝億) over a report published on the site last month concerning the Want Want Group’s bid to acquire cable TV operator China Network Systems.
The report suggested that two pan-blue camp legislators, Hsieh being one, had pressured the National Communications Commission (NCC) into approving the merger. Hsieh also applied for the provisional seizure of Su and Lin’s salaries and assets to the tune of NT$5 million (US$166,000).
Thankfully, faced with appeals from civic groups and academics alarmed about the economic intimidation of media workers, Hsieh subsequently withdrew his application for the seizures.
However, there is something worrying about this litigation that goes beyond political interference in the freedom of the press and needs to be addressed on a legal and systemic level.
A few years ago, Hon Hai Precision Industry chairman Terry Gou (郭台銘) sought a similar injunction against Joyce Kung (曠文琪), a business reporter for the Chinese-language Commercial Times. Now that Hsieh has reinforced the efficacy of this approach, there are concerns it could become commonplace for the wealthy and powerful to use their financial clout against journalists trying to report the truth.
In legal terms the freedom of the press can be maintained by calling on judges presiding over appeals for provisional seizures to take into account the unique position of the press as the fourth estate.
The importance we accord press freedom is demonstrated by provisions within the Criminal Code that allow for a degree of latitude in cases pertaining to fair comment or subjects considered fair game. Judges have the power to interpret the law and if they think journalists have genuinely represented the truth and been sufficiently rigorous in checking the facts, find in their favor.
Nevertheless, the guarantees enshrined in the Criminal Code are insufficient because powerful individuals can just as easily file a civil case.
On a systemic level, to prevent such lawsuits from curtailing press freedom, people working in the media should establish a “journalists’ litigation fund,” as in the US and UK, with pre-agreed contributions from media companies and the government, and donations from journalists and other quarters.
Such a fund would be overseen by the public sector and specialist organizations, and be used to pay the cost of related lawsuits. That would give people working in the media industry an adequate guarantee as well as a sense of unity, which is all the more important with the increasing numbers of private reporters undertaking investigative journalism, who would otherwise have to face the threat of legal action on their own.
Freedom of the press costs nothing, but that does not mean that it comes without a price. Clearly, it is unfair to ask individual journalists to pay that price.
In addition, the rich and powerful need to know that they too have to pay a price for their position in society, and that with the limelight comes public scrutiny. They must not be allowed to use the threat of economic sanctions to intimidate reporters. The courts, too, should learn to respect the unique position of the media.
Finally, media companies and the government also need to play their part, to support the establishment of a litigation fund so journalists can monitor the rich and powerful in society without fear of the consequences.