The protests against adjustments to high-school curriculum guidelines have drawn to a halt, and so too has the legal action that the Ministry of Education took against reporters who entered the ministry building last month. However, a suspension of legal action does not mean that the government can avoid responsibility for obstructing press freedom, nor does it mean that the increasingly ruthless suppression of journalism during protests should be allowed to continue. It is time to re-establish regulations protecting the right to report during protests.
An official explanation of the harm caused to press freedom when the reporters were arrested has not been offered by the ministry, prosecutors or the police. Nor have any apologies been issued. No wonder some media organizations have strongly criticized the ministry, saying its dropping of the lawsuit could be likened to slapping a person in public and then apologizing in private.
The Taipei City Government has held discussions with media organizations about regulations governing newsgathering at the scene of protests, but these discussions have failed to address the requirements for reporting in real situations. Reportedly, the discussions have included designating a specific zone for reporters, asking reporters to wear uniform vests and having the police arrange a liaison with reporters on site. However, experience both in Taiwan and abroad shows that designating a reporting zone limits journalists’ area of operations and seriously restricts information gathering. Implementation would be difficult. Although arranging a liaison between the police and reporters could be seen as an extension of the police’s service, the liaison would not be capable of meeting reporting needs — which are complicated and urgent — or confirm reporters’ identification. Hence, this measure would be of little use to address controversies over reporting at the scene of protests.
Many journalists in democratic countries agree on the use of identification, in that it facilitates reporting while making it easier for the police to do their job. The problem is how to find a good way to display IDs. Pragmatically speaking, if media organizations or journalists cannot reach a consensus with the government on how identification should be done, it would seem most workable for journalists to do it themselves. After all, citizen or independent reporters, who are being gradually recognized by law, do not belong to any media organizations, nor are they administered by the police. This makes it impractical for the government or media organizations to impose a uniform identification scheme.
If professional and citizen reporters were to make their own badges, reporter ID cards or vests to identify themselves, it would be easier for the police to distinguish demonstrators from reporters at the scene of a protest. As for the reporters, this would protect their right to report and reduce the risk of them being mistaken for protesters. The police might suspect demonstrators of trying to avoid being controlled by pretending to be reporters. This might have happened in the past, but it is not a matter of great concern. Citizen reporters have their clear mission, and if they want to do their duty correctly, which is to report news, they should not display or conceal their IDs carelessly.
Moreover, in the light of Taiwan’s democracy, it would be unacceptable for a person to hold dual identities as both protester and citizen reporter on the scene of a protest. If citizen reporters want to give a first-hand report on what happens at a protest, they have to keep a safe distance from whom they are reporting about, for this is the critical foundation on which their credibility is built.
It has become a general consensus in most democracies that the rights of different kinds of reporters to gather news should be respected and that journalists should be allowed to identify themselves properly. In a democracy, there are no rules that cannot be changed any more than a democracy can function in a lawless society. While the ministry’s decision to drop legal action against the reporters might not be the end of the controversy, it should be the beginning of the re-establishment of newsgathering regulations.
If government departments refuse to acknowledge and protect journalists’ right to report, they are bound to suffer the consequences of crumbling government credibility and a deteriorating democracy. By the same token, if the media and journalists cannot actively push the government to regulate reporting at the scene of protests, they will face the risk of suppressed journalistic freedom and personal safety. It is about time that the nation came together for a discussion on the rules of the game and shared the democratic responsibilities.
Hu Yuan-hui is an associate professor of communications at National Chung Cheng University.
Translated by Ethan Zhan
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