Relations between Taiwan and the Philippines have been strained by the May 9 fatal shooting of fisherman Hung Shih-cheng (洪石成) by Philippine Coast Guard personnel, leaving Filipino workers in Taiwan exposed to potential fallout from the incident. It is in this context that a fabricated story posted online caused a national stir.
The story was about a restaurant owner refusing to serve a Filipino customer who was then left waiting outside for over an hour. Although the author later admitted the story was false, it resonated with the public mood in Taiwan and quickly went viral.
Many Taiwanese are angry at what they perceive as the Philippine government dragging its feet over an investigation into the shooting and in offering an official apology for the incident. It has also been criticized for failing to meet demands for compensation for Hung’s family, for its failure to punish the perpetrators and for not holding talks on a fisheries agreement with Taiwan.
Manila Economic and Cultural Office Chairman Amadeo Perez, the special envoy sent to Taiwan to extend his sympathies on behalf of the Philippine government, was even turned away by some Taipei hotels.
Nevertheless, even when relations between the two countries were at their lowest, Chang Cheng (張正), the editor-in-chief of Four Way Voice — the Chinese-language newspaper that first ran the fake story — apologized and offered his resignation when he discovered that the story had been fabricated by a journalist, surnamed Cheng (鄭), working for the Chinese-language daily Lih Pao, the Four Way Voice’s sister paper.
Chang was willing to “fall on his sword” for his lapse of judgment. He offered to resign for failing to observe a crucial aspect of the code of journalism: checking the facts.
This sense of responsibility for self-discipline within the media, during a time rife with newspaper scandals, is a rare glimmer of light.
However, Minister of the Interior Lee Hong-yuan’s (李鴻源) instructing the police to investigate the story’s source is an affront to freedom of expression. From the beginning, when a woman, surnamed Tung (董), posted a similar story about a cafe’s refusal to serve Filipinos on her Facebook page, netizens had their suspicions as to its authenticity, provoking a search to find out more.
However, this probing was kept within the online community.
When police summoned Tung and Cheng for questioning and considered charging them with violating the Social Order Maintenance Act (社會秩序維護法), the ghost of the White Terror era reared its ugly head. It was no surprise then that a law professor protested the involvement of the state in a debate in the public sphere by posting a similar fabricated story on his Facebook page and inviting the authorities to investigate him.
The furor surrounding the fabricated stories is a moral issue and the government should not be involving state apparatus — ostensibly to prevent people from damaging the nation’s image — or initiating criminal investigations into the matter.
If the government is right and these stories are detrimental to the nation’s image, then surely putting up signs reading “We don’t serve Filipinos” and “Please don’t shoot me” — as some stores have reportedly done — is even more damaging. Why did the government not investigate these stores?
The public seems to be blowing hot and cold over this issue. One minute there are reports of people wanting to kick Filipinos out of the country, the next one hears of “friendly Taiwan” initiatives from people wanting to show their support for Filipinos living in Taiwan.
These mood extremes are not normal.
The nation’s broadcast media should not cater to the fickle public mood with sensationalist stories aimed at boosting viewership, but should instead call on the public to remain calm, while reporting events in an objective, measured way.