Sun, Nov 04, 2018 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan in Time: The price of free speech

The bold criticism of the Chinese Nationalist party by the ‘Public Opinion Press’ in the 1940s and 1950s resulted in fierce government oppression, with readers and staff constantly harassed and at least 10 employees arrested and jailed

By Han Cheung  /  Staff Reporter

This Sept. 6, 1960 edition of the Public Opinion Press includes a front page editorial that announces editorial support for Lei Chen, who was arrested for trying to form an opposition party.

Photo courtesy of National Central Library

Nov. 5 to Nov. 11

The arrest of editor-in-chief Ni Shih-tan (倪師壇) on Nov. 7, 1957, was just the beginning of the end for the struggling Public Opinion Press (公論報).

Despite funding issues and other difficulties, the newspaper had celebrated its 10th anniversary two weeks earlier. Supportive of the government at first, its stance was growing increasingly critical, especially after the local elections in April 1957 where the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) claimed 20 out of 21 positions amid a myriad of vote rigging controversies.

“The KMT has held power for too long … and has lost the hearts of the people,” an editorial stated.

Before Ni’s arrest, the paper pulled no punches in an editorial titled, “How to celebrate the president’s birthday,” on Oct. 31, referring to Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石). It criticized KMT members and high-level government officials, warning that since the president “relies on them and has high expectations, they should examine their own conduct and take concrete actions to relieve the burden on the president instead of proclaiming empty loyalty.”

The equally critical Free China (自由中國) magazine published a similar “birthday” editorial, urging Chiang to abandon his authoritarian ways and establish civilian control of the military. Nobody was arrested, but government agencies, the military and the state-run newspapers all attacked Free China in their publications.

Ni was eventually sentenced to six years in jail for “failing to report Communist activity,” a military court accusing the reformed Chinese Communist Party member of meeting a former comrade on the streets, but not informing the authorities.

FREEDOM AND DEMOCRACY

Founder and publisher Lee Wan-chu (李萬居) took over as editor-in-chief after Ni’s arrest. Lee was one of the six Taiwan-born members of the Provincial Assembly, dubbed the “Five Dragons, One Phoenix” for their firebrand questioning style and relentless pursuit of democracy. His paper reflected these ideals.

Lee details the founding of the paper in an article on its 10th-year anniversary: “Two years after [the KMT took over Taiwan] ... mistrust and a lack of understanding between those born in Taiwan and those born in China have led to many setbacks. To ensure local development and resolve the animosity between different groups, a local civilian paper is urgently needed.”

Its stance was simple: “Taiwan is finally free from the shackles of 50 years of Japanese imperialist rule, and its people will change from slaves to their own masters. Their thirst for democracy, freedom and advancement is especially strong … The service we provide to society is a historic mission only made possible by the retrocession of Taiwan, hence we chose [Oct. 25, Retrocession Day] as our founding date.”

However, Lee also wrote about the struggles to keep the paper afloat. Lee found it hard to obtain funding, noting that investors were reluctant to help him due to fear of retribution after the 228 Incident, an anti-government uprising in 1947 that the KMT government brutally suppressed. Fortunately, his other endeavors were lucrative enough to support the publication.

When other struggling papers banded together to establish the United Daily News (聯合報) in 1951, Lee chose to remain independent to maintain editorial freedom.

‘IMPROPER RHETORIC’

Oppression was also part of the hardships, as Public Opinion Press was watched closely by the authorities from the very start. Lee’s position as a Chinese Youth Party (中國青年黨, a minor political party that had little clout) politician didn’t help either, as it had to repeatedly assert that it was not a party mouthpiece.

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