Wed, Mar 14, 2012 - Page 8 News List

EDITORIAL: No respect for exposing secrets

After six years and millions of New Taiwan dollars, documentary filmmaker Kevin Lee (李惠仁) finished his film A Secret That Can’t Be Exposed (不能戳的秘密). The film, in which Lee exposes the truth about Taiwan’s avian influenza epidemic, received an accolade from the Taiwanese Foundation for Excellent Journalism Award. The way in which the government handled the epidemic and its attempt to cover up the outbreak, ignoring Lee’s warning and the concerns of chicken and egg farmers, has set off an avian flu scare.

Late last year, Lee, who for a long time has been concerned about and followed outbreaks of avian flu nationwide, found large numbers of dead chickens during an investigation in Changhua County. He collected four carcasses and sent one each to four agencies — including the Council of Agriculture’s Bureau of Animal and Plant Health Inspection and Quarantine and a private agency — for examination. The private agency identified a highly pathogenic virus strain. Lee expected the Council of Agriculture to make the same finding, but the council, prior to calling a meeting of experts to discuss the issue, reported the appearance of a low-pathogenicity virus strain to the World Organisation for Animal Heath (OIE). Concerned, Lee warned that an avian flu epidemic could already have broken out in central Taiwan.

On Jan. 6, Lee released on the Internet a documentary called Notes, in which he told the story about the dead chickens he found in Changhua. The council promptly denied his claims and said the farms were operating normally. However, in the end, the avian flu epidemic could not be contained and, earlier this month, the bureau announced that highly pathogenic H5N2 virus strains had been identified at two chicken farms in Changhua County and Greater Tainan. It was the first time that a highly pathogenic avian flu virus strain had officially been found in Taiwan. The council reported the outbreak to the OIE and placed a three-month temporary ban on exports of poultry meat products, while bureau director-general Hsu Tien-lai (許天來), who has been accused of covering up the epidemic for 70 days, resigned.

Even more shocking is the revelation of audio recordings from a meeting discussing the outbreak, in which it became apparent that the authorities were aware of the situation even before the outbreak, but apparently decided to keep it quiet for political reasons. The recording includes such statements as “there is no rush to come to a decision” and “the best thing would be to wait to hold a meeting until the boss steps down.” If this is true, it would mean the agricultural authorities in their fatuousness and callousness were prepared to sacrifice public health because they were afraid it would affect the Jan. 14 presidential and legislative elections.

Although Lee was able to bring the epidemic to light, he had to go through an arduous process to do so. Neither officials nor chicken farmers welcomed his efforts and officials did all they could to block his investigations. They did not provide any information and even accused Lee of scare-mongering and threatened to take legal action. Despite all this, Lee persisted and paid for tests out of his own pocket. In the end, the truth was revealed, proving that Lee had been right all along.

Without the persistence, professionalism and refusal to compromise of people like Lee and Food and Drug Administration inspector Yang Ming-yu (楊明玉) — who last year discovered the use of illegal plasticizers in drinks — society would suffer even more. Yang received the government’s praise, while Lee remains a lone hero shunned by the government. Both the government and the public owe Lee a standing ovation.

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