A controversy surrounding an Associated Press (AP) interview with President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) took a new turn yesterday after Government Information Office (GIO) Minister Johnny Chiang (江啟臣) sent a letter to John Daniszewski, the international editor at AP, requesting that the news agency “investigate the causes of distortions in the interview piece” and make corrections as soon as possible.
At the heart of the controversy is a section of the interview published by AP on Tuesday where Ma’s remarks are portrayed as suggesting that sensitive political talks with Beijing, including security issues, could start as early as his second four-year term, provided he is re-elected in 2012.
Ma denies providing a timeline or tying such talks to his re-election.
In a press statement, the GIO said AP did not “correctly reflect” the views expressed by Ma during the interview and “misled” readers by printing remarks that Ma did not make, which “runs against the code of ethics universally adopted in international journalism.”
An interviewer who imposes arguments that either depart from the interviewees’ opinions or are created out of nothing will cause irreparable damage, especially on highly sensitive issues such as cross-strait relations, the statement said.
The GIO’s overseas office in New York has been in talks with AP in New York and was informed that the organization would look into the matter, the statement said.
On Tuesday, the Presidential Office requested that AP make corrections to its story. AP, which said it stood by its report, made minor changes, but Presidential Office Spokesman Lo Chih-chiang (羅智強) said the Presidential Office remained unsatisfied with the revised version.
The interview quoted the president as saying that his administration was not “intentionally delaying talks on political issues [with China].”
Asked whether the discussions would start if he were elected to a second term, Ma said: “It depends on how fast we move.”
After the interview came out, Ma called an impromptu press conference where he denied providing a specific timeline for political talks. The only timeline mentioned during the interview, he said, was that economic matters would come before political ones.
Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) yesterday said the president needed to watch his words.
“It seems to be a recurring theme. [Ma] needs be especially careful when speaking on such sensitive matters to foreign media,” she said. Any mistake, she said, could give an impression of instability in cross-strait policies.
DPP spokesperson Tsai Chi-chang (蔡其昌) said the president should strive for consistency in his comments to media.
“He shouldn’t just say something now and something else later,” Tsai Chi-chang said. “People will start thinking he’s double-dealing and delivering different messages to international media and to Taiwanese.”
Conducted entirely in English, the interview focused on cross-strait economic issues, but also addressed political talks and US arms sales to Taiwan. It quoted the president as saying that a political union between Taiwan and China would require Beijing to first adopt democracy and respect for human rights.
This was not the first time the president claimed he was misquoted or his views misrepresented during interviews with foreign media.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal last December, also conducted in English, Ma said: “Whether there will be reunification [sic] as expected by the mainland side depends very much on what is going to unfold in the next decades.”
The last word, originally written in the singular, was changed after the Presidential Office protested.
Ma also caused a stir in May when he told CNN in English that Taiwan would “never ask the Americans to fight for Taiwan.”
He later publicly clarified his remarks, saying he was confident there would not be war in the Taiwan Strait during his presidency.
The reports were signals that Ma should stop using English to conduct interviews with foreign media, DPP lawmakers said. Speaking English, they pointed out, made his remarks more open to interpretation.
“The way Ma held the impromptu press conference [on Tuesday] night; I thought there was a national crisis. It turns out the president only needed to clarify his interview,” DPP Legislator Pan Men-an (潘孟安) said. “Maybe Ma should just use his mother tongue when accepting foreign interviews from now on.”
Either that or Ma should think about employing a “truth commission” every time he speaks to foreign media, he said.
DPP Legislator Huang Wei-cher (黃偉哲) said political talks would be “premature,” as a national consensus on the matter had yet to be achieved. Any negotiation, he said, should be subject to public approval, which he added would not be given.
“This isn’t just a question of whether the language he used was precise,” he said. “More importantly, we want to know what he was thinking” when he made his remarks.
The Presidential Office yesterday said Ma would weigh several factors before deciding whether to answer questions in English or Mandarin during interviews.
Lo said the office would “seriously consider” the suggestions and criticism by various media following the controversy.
The Chinese-language United Daily News yesterday said Ma should ask himself why his -explanations on his cross-strait policies are constantly “misunderstood and distorted” by foreign media.
The China Times asked why Ma insisted on answering questions in English in interviews with foreign media. The report said no one doubted Ma’s English abilities, as he once served as English interpreter for late president Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國). However, given the importance and sensitivity of cross-strait issues, Ma should consider either giving interviews to foreign media in Chinese or preparing his answers in English beforehand.
“The president will take the questions and the nature of the media organization, as well as their needs, into consideration before he decides whether to answer in English or Mandarin,” Lo said.
The crux of the problem, Lo said yesterday, does not lie in the answer Ma provided in English, but with the media, which did not accurately report his words and over-interpreted what he said.
Meanwhile, Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Lin Yu-fang (林郁方) accused AP of over--interpreting Ma’s remarks, alleging it did so to boost its readership.
Lin backed the president’s version, saying Ma told AP several times that cross-strait political talks would only happen after economic issues were resolved.
Additional reporting by Flora Wang and Shih Hsiu-chuan
Presidential Office transcript of Ma interview and AP version
The following is a transcript of the The Associated Press (AP) interview with President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) concerning the two points on which Ma says he was misquoted:
The AP article:
Any political union, he said, would require Beijing to adopt democracy and respect for human rights, under special scrutiny following the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to jailed China democracy campaigner Liu Xiaobo. Because of such concerns, Ma did not cite any timetable for the process, saying it would be a “long historical” transition.
Presidential Office Transcription:
AP: I wanted to circle back to something you said earlier. I think what I heard you say was that a truly democratic system of government in the mainland is the only way that the Taiwanese people will engage in a conversation about unification.
President Ma: I think that will help, that will help. In other words, but there’s no guarantee how long it would take for the people of Taiwan to believe it’s time to do so. And opinion polls show that the majority of the people support maintaining the status quo. And obviously this trend has been maintained for over at least 20 years. And given the high approval rate of the status quo I think we’ll continue. So far, the mainland, aside from the economic side, the political reforms on the democratic side have made little progress.
The AP article:
In between the poles of union and separation, Ma said his government is prepared to discuss political agreements, including security issues, as soon as the priority economic issues are dealt with. He suggested that those political talks could start as early as a second four-year term if he wins re-election in 2012.
Presidential Office Transcription:
AP: Would the policy that you’re spelling out carry through a second term, were you to be reelected? Is just this period that you’re talking about — of economic outreach, travel back and forth but not political dialogue — does that carry through a second administration, or is that a commitment that you made for the first administration?
President Ma: Well, it depends on how fast we move with our relations with the mainland. For instance, now, we are almost two-and-a-half years into my presidency and we have achieved 14 agreements with the mainland. But we haven’t finished the important ones, for instance, an investment guarantee agreement, a dispute settlement agreement. And for our trade, in terms of tariff concessions and non-tariff barriers, we have only reached the first phase on the negotiations — that is what we call the “early harvest.” So the two sides will return to the negotiating table next year to discuss the rest of the trade and other relationships. So we still have our hands full with all these economic issues because, you see, the two sides have a trade volume of over US$100 billion and we haven’t got any mechanism for dispute settlement and for a number of things that will exist between two normal economic entities. That is exactly what we want to do. We are not intentionally delaying the talks of political issues, but certainly, the economic ones are more important to people here, and people also support the idea of economy first, politics later.
AP: So, do I understand you correctly that, if economic issues are resolved during your second term, during that term, you might move on to political questions?
President Ma: As I said, it depends on how fast we move, whether these issues are satisfactorily resolved, and of course all the policies regarding the mainland are very sensitive, and we certainly will also make decisions on generally whether the decision receives popular support.
So usually when we lay out our general policy, we will say that: first of all, it has to be something needed by the country; secondly, it has to be supported by the people; and thirdly, that it will be supervised by the national parliament to make sure that this is a policy basically meeting the needs of the people.
AP: In that progression from economic issues to political issues, what about the security issues and perhaps moving towards confidence-building measures between the militaries, where does that fall in this process?
President Ma: The CBM issue is generally considered in the broad sense of political issues. And certainly as I said, that will come after all the major economic issues are resolved. But we’re not in a hurry because the two sides, as a result of the efforts we’ve made, greatly reduced tension across the Taiwan Strait. When we talk about CBM — confidence building measures — when we signed, when we negotiated and signed the ECFA, that was a very important CBM. And the process lasted for over a year, and during the process, the officials involved from the two sides also built mutual trust in some regard. And this is exactly what we would like to see. So they can just pick up a phone and call each other.
For instance, when we reached the agreement to have judicial assistance, mutual assistance in judicial affairs, the police from the two sides met and jointly broke several rings of crime on fraud, and we have so far apprehended 1,200 criminals in this regard, and greatly reduced that crime, the fraud — even people told me that they used to receive many calls — which will affect fraud, but the number was greatly reduced. And so the cross-strait rapprochement did bring many benefits, not just economic, but also for our personal safety and all other things.
SOURCES: PRESIDENTIAL OFFICE WEB SITE
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