The announcement could not have come at a more appropriate moment. Thursday, on the eve of Taiwan’s first national “Freedom of Speech Day”, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said it would set up its first Asian bureau in Taipei.
That Taipei won out over Hong Kong to become the group’s 12th bureau made the news both much sweeter and more ironic. It can be seen as recognition not just of how far Taiwan has come in the three decades since RSF was founded, but how quickly Hong Kong’s long vaunted independence has declined in the past two decades.
However, this is not the first time that Taiwan has won out over Hong Kong because of concerns about Beijing’s compromising of the territory’s press and political freedoms. In late October 1993, Father Yves Nalet, the editor of the highly regarded China News Analysis, announced that the journal and its archives would be moving to the newly established Socio-Cultural Research Center at Fu Jen University in Taipei.
China News Analysis, founded in 1953 by another Jesuit, Father Laszlo Ladany, scoured Chinese newspapers and magazines for insight into the workings of the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese government to provide insight to a readership made up of government officials, diplomats, academics and journalists the world over.
The concern was that after the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to Beijing, the territory might become less hospitable to China-watchers, and Taiwan was seen as a safer bet — even though 1993 was just six years after the lifting of martial law, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) still dominated Taiwanese media.
China News Analysis’ two Jesuit editors moved to Taiwan the following spring, five years after 43-year-old editor Deng Nan-jung (鄭南榕) killed himself in defense of free speech — and a free press — as heavily armed police and soldiers tried to storm his office.
Deng had been holed up in his office for 71 days in an effort to avoid arrest, after being charged with sedition in January 1989 for publishing a draft “Taiwan Republic Constitution” in his magazine, Freedom Era Weekly. The charge carried a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Deng set himself alight on April 7, 1989, sacrificing his life to defend freedom of speech.
While yesterday was the first time the nation marked Freedom of Speech Day to commemorate Deng, it was not the first time April 7 has been commemorated in Taiwan.
The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) tried to push the Legislative Yuan to honor Deng in 2009 and again in 2012 and 2015. However, municipal governments, largely DPP-run, were eventually the first to do so: First the Tainan City Government in 2012, followed a year later by the Yilan County Government, with Kaohsiung, Taichung, Yunlin, Chiayi and Pingtung joining in before Taipei did so last year.
Then-president-elect Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) vowed in April last year to push for a Freedom of Speech Day, just as she had one year earlier during a memorial at Deng’s grave in New Taipei City’s Jinshan District (金山). Finally, on Dec. 22 last year, the Cabinet approved a proposal to designate April 7 Freedom of Speech Day.
The media landscape in Taiwan has changed dramatically since Deng’s death. The access that Taiwanese have to local and world news today was unimaginable in the late 1980s and 1990s.
Yet defenders of freedom of speech and a free press are needed more than ever in a world filled with “fake news,” political, ethnic and religious unrest, click-bait Web sites and Internet trolling.
Deng’s sacrifice — and those of other pro-democracy campaigners — helped spur the nation toward full democracy and protection of human rights. It is only right that their sacrifices be remembered and honored.
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