Lawmakers across party lines yesterday said the government was “slow and incapable” of positively managing the nation’s image in a global media spotlight, a flaw they said was highlighted after the fatal shooting of a Taiwanese fisherman by Philippine Coast Guard personnel and the recent food scare related to the use of maleic anhydride-modified industrial starch in food products.
Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Legislator Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴), rotating chair of the legislature’s Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee, yesterday held a meeting to discuss issues concerning the government’s handling of the international media.
Despite the fact that related issues are under the direct supervision of Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Vanessa Shih (史亞平), Shih absented herself from the meeting and Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Simon Ko (柯森耀) stood in.
DPP Legislator Lin Chia-lung (林佳龍) criticized Shih’s absence.
Lin said Shih’s reason for not attending, that she was not in a politically appointed position, was just an excuse to avoid having to appear before the legislature.
“Shih supervises the Department of International Information Services. Absenting herself from the committee was a violation of democratic norms,” Lin said.
Several DPP and Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) lawmakers, as well People First Party (PFP) Legislator Thomas Lee (李桐豪), attributed the image problem to the dissolution of the Government Information Office (GIO), part of the government’s ongoing plan to streamline the Executive Yuan.
The GIO’s function was split between the Executive Yuan’s spokesperson’s office, the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with public relations and communication affairs taken over by the foreign ministry’s newly established Department of International Information Services.
The lawmakers criticized the foreign ministry for “a lack of sensitivity” and a failure to adopt a pre-emptive approach to international media coverage during crisis management.
Executive Yuan spokesperson Cheng Li-wun (鄭麗文) speaks only for Premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺), while Presidential Office spokesperson Lee Chia-fei (李佳霏) speaks only for President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), Lin said.
“We don’t have a spokesperson speaking for the nation. The foreign ministry must position itself as the government’s spokesperson,” Lin said.
In response to DPP Legislator Tsai Hung-liang’s (蔡煌瑯) assertion that the foreign ministry should address the food scare, Ko said the ministry has been gathering international public opinion on the issue, but has not come up with a plan on how to respond to that because “the issue falls under the remit of the Department of Health.”
“When the Department of Health decides what needs to be done, we will fully cooperate,” Ko said.
Lin said Ko’s reply showed that after the handling of public relations was transferred from the GIO to the foreign ministry about a year ago, the ministry has not cultivated a mindset to proactively handle issues unfavorable for the nation’s image.
KMT Legislator Yang Ying-hsiung (楊應雄) criticized the foreign ministry for being slow to explain to the international community the truth of the shooting incident on May 9.
The remarks made by acting US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Joseph Yun on May 17 that the circumstances leading to the incident have remained unclear to the US showed that the foreign ministry had failed to convey sufficient information to the US to solicit its support, he added.
KMT Legislator Johnny Chiang (江啟臣), who was head of the GIO between February 2010 and May 2011, termed the foreign ministry’s lackluster performance on public relations “a structural problem” and “not just an isolated case.”
The foreign ministry did not set up a contact point for international media outlets to provide them with up-to-date information regarding the government’s position and its policies on the shooting incident until May 19, he said.
“What were you doing during the 10 days from May 9 to May 19? Taiwanese fishing boats have been suffering intimidation from the Philippines for so many years. Why didn’t you tell those stories to the international community?” Chiang asked.
He said the respective responsibilities of the foreign ministry and the former GIO were inherently not a good fit.
The foreign ministry tends to handle issues in a diplomatic way, where it hopes problems can be resolved through negotiations that are under the radar, Chiang said.
“It deserves discussion whether that diplomatic culture should be handling public relations,” he said.