Human rights activists in Taiwan have long lashed out at law enforcement officials for the practice of exposing suspects in criminal cases to the media before a trial.
To highlight the problem, a group of scholars and professionals assembled at National Chengchi University yesterday for a conference to discuss the contentious issue of privacy rights and free press.
Until the wrongful arrest of four youths in the recent Shin Kong theft case, police had been given significant leeway when issuing information about suspects in criminal cases to the media.
Leaking information concerning an investigative proceeding, however, is legally prohibited in Taiwan, but police and prosecutors regularly permit camera crews to film searches, arrests, and interrogations of suspects.
More strikingly, the police have often forced the suspects to stand under a banner, which identified their personal information and alleged crimes, and have the media camera record the "historic" moments.
Following the Shin Kong theft debacle, in which four youths were wrongfully detained and forced to confess by police, a number of legislators pressed the police administration to stop the practice of privacy intrusion with threats of budget cuts.
While the police have promised to discontinue the practice, debate remains over the balance between the suspects' privacy and the public's right to know in media coverage of criminal investigations.
Su Yue-chen (
"To boost their popularity through the media, police and prosecutors have little concern for the principle that investigative proceedings should be kept confidential," Su said.
"The law itself bars media from investigative proceedings, but the problem won't get public attention unless a lawsuit is filed against either investigators or media," Su said.
Taiwan law stipulates that criminal investigations should be held confidential to uphold the principle of presumption of innocence and also to minimize interference in investigations. As a result, both law enforcement officials and media can be sued for leaking information of the criminal investigation under the law.
Nigel Li (李念祖), a professor of constitutional law and a lawyer, speaking at the conference, placed blame for privacy intrusions on police and prosecutors, suggesting the law enforcers often actively initiate the media stunt.
"They [the police] call press conferences to publicize investigation activities, taking camera crews with them on police raids. But isn't it their job to ensure confidentiality of the criminal investigation?" Li asked.
In the face of the attacks, Liu Cheng-wu (
"Some cases need to be kept absolutely confidential. But in some cases, media publicity can show government efforts to fight crime, and keep the public up on law enforcement activities," Liu said.
"Of course we [law enforcers] know the principle of secret investigation. But the claim of free press is so powerful that the media feels it can have access to our investigative activities from time to time," Liu said.
There has been an international debate that freedom of the press might infringe on people's privacy or other human rights. The US Supreme Court ruled in May 1999 that police violate privacy rights by bringing news media with them inside a person's home during an arrest or search.
In Montana and Maryland, where acquitted suspects filed lawsuits against federal agents and prosecutors for intrusion of privacy, the US Supreme Court declared that law enforcement officials who authorize and carry out media ride-alongs can be forced to pay monetary damages for violating the Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches and seizures.
Acknowledging complexities surrounding the debate, Chang Yung-ming (
"It's in the public's interest to report criminal stories. But I think, for the audience that what happened is more important than who these suspects are," Chang said.
Nigel Li, by citing a legal concept of equity, concluded protection of civil liberties weighs more than that of free press.
"The debate has been going on and on for ages as to the importance of free press and privacy," Li said. "But when there has to be a choice from the law enforcement side, I think it [the choice] has to be protection of people's civil liberties," Li said.
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