Minister of Justice Chen Ding-nan's (
Chen lashed out at the lack of media discipline in Taiwan while answering questions from reporters in Washington two weeks ago. He argued that Taiwan's media now enjoys much more freedom to cover news than its counterparts in the US and Japan, but that the mainstream media have been taking freedom of the press to extremes.
He accused the media of being immature and irresponsible, and of breaching personal privacy and minimum levels of decency and respect as they gather news. He also cited the reluctance of Taiwan's media to print corrections and readers' letters as examples of a failure to strive for balanced reporting.
ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE
He justified the prosecutors' raids on two media outlets in March this year as necessary to protect national security and state secrets, saying that freedom of the press cannot be used as an excuse for illegal activities. And he cautioned that freedom of the press in Taiwan has been abused to such an extent that the press has become a source of chaos and that a sort of "dictatorship of the press" had been established.
Few would argue that the quality of news reporting and general professionalism among journalists in Taiwan leave much to be desired, but this tongue-lashing by Chen -- generally regarded as one of the most outspoken and yet upright ministers in the DPP government -- proved too much for Taiwanese correspondents in Washington. A good portion of the coverage of his visit was centered on the strength of feeling -- not to mention the unexpected timing -- of his tirade against the media.
Ever since Taiwan's democratization began in the late 1980s, the vibrant growth of the media industry has been one of its defining characteristics. By and large the public has enjoyed a higher degree of free speech and has been better informed by a freer press than ever before.
Improvements to the institutional and legal framework within which the media operates, however, have struggled to keep pace. A boom in the mass media has led to fierce competition, which in turn has spawned many of the less savoury practices to which our TV screens, airwaves and newsprint bear testament every day.
The relationship between media and politics
The media and politics are inextricably linked, particularly in a young democracy like Taiwan.
During the martial-law era, the KMT government's high-handed censorship of the press and the institutionalized mechanisms by which it interfered with the media were all-pervasive and earned it harsh and perpetual criticism both domestically and abroad. The ownership or dominant share-holdings in the three terrestrial television stations by the government and the military rendered them little more than government mouthpieces.
Since the ban on new news agencies was lifted in 1988, however, the proliferation of all types of media outlets and the widespread awareness of the value of press freedom now makes a return to the bad old days almost inconceivable.
But the influence of politics on the media is so deeply entrenched that nothing -- not 14 years without martial law and not the nation's first transfer of political power two years ago -- have shaken it.
The DPP, for example, has replaced the KMT as the major shareholder in two terrestrial TV companies, the Chinese Television System (CTS,
The KMT has managed to maintain its dominance over the other terrestrial TV station, the China Television Company (CTV,
Although there is a consensus for keeping political parties, the government and the military out of the media, a good number of individual politicians still cling to whatever media resources they can get hold of, by, for example, serving as hosts of political talk shows, thus undermining the media's vital role as the "fourth estate" in a democratic society.
So despite high-flown rhetoric from the ruling and opposition parties about freeing the media from political manipulation and intervention, efforts in recent years to overhaul the relationship between the media and politics have come to nothing.
The concentration of major media outlets, especially the newly-launched cable TV stations, in a handful of business conglomerates over recent years adds a new dimension to the relationship between the media and politics. Although independent media can operate with relative freedom from political interference, some media owners try to jump on the political bandwagon and maintain close ties with the government through the manipulation of their own media enterprises.
Indeed, the nature of the relationship has changed in the sense that media are not quite the tools of political propaganda that they once were. Instead, media owners, who are also often owners of multinational corporations, now also tend to use the penetrating influence of the media to promote their own commercial interests.
While they used to use their own media enterprises to pander to politicians in exchange for political influence, today they use it to persuade government officials to formulate policies favorable to their own businesses.
The freedom of press and national security
A number of incidents involving the media over the last two years showed that Taiwan, in the face of external threats from China, has much to learn in striking a balance between the protection of national security and upholding of press freedom.
The DPP government's commitment to the freedom of press was first called into question in September 2000, when prosecutors raided the China Times Express, which had printed part of three documents containing secret interrogation records connected to the investigation of a case related to former National Security Bureau cashier chief Liu Kuan-chun (
In March of this year, the government was again accused of undermining press freedom in attempting to cover up a potentially embarrassing story that alleged wrongdoing by former president Lee Teng-hui (
On the ground that the media's disclosure of the account details, believed to have been leaked by Liu, might jeopardize national security, prosecutors raided the offices of Next magazine and the China Times daily and confiscated 160,000 copies of the magazine.
Huang Ching-lung (黃清龍), the editor in chief of the China Times and Hsieh Zhong-liang (謝忠良), the reporter who wrote the story in Next, were charged with breaching national security. But, although the raids appear to have been conducted in accordance with due process as stipulated in the Code of Criminal Procedure, they came under heavy criticism in Taiwan, and the US State Department and international press advocacy groups expressed grave concern.
Immediately after the raids, NSB officials stressed the supremacy of national security. But when condemnation appeared to dominate public opinion, government officials softened their tone and finally acknowledged the importance of press freedom.
President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), quoting US President Thomas Jefferson and saying he would choose media over government, urged the country to reconsider the meanings of national security concerns and freedom of the press and debate rationally how the line between the two should be drawn.
The raids were a huge blow to press freedom and the confiscation of copies of the magazine failed to prevent the classified information from being made public. The fact that the magazine could be purchased from newsstands the next day was an embarrassment to the NSB and the DPP's image, fostered during its opposition days as an advocate of press freedom and human rights, was badly tarnished.
That said, given the constant threat from China, information related to national security is vital to Taiwan's survival and should not be taken lightly. At stake is not whether press freedom or national security takes precedence, but how to cultivate an institutional environment in which both are respected and protected.
Vital steps in that direction will be passage of the law on opening government information (
Press freedom and libel
The last two years have also seen a number of significant court cases involving the media, which have come a long way to help better define the libel laws, enhance press freedom and afford better protection to members of the media.
One case still fresh in the collective memory is the libel lawsuit between Vice President Annette Lu (
In a cover story in November 2000, the political weekly claimed Lu had made phone calls to spread rumors about an alleged affair between President Chen and one of his female aides in an attempt to unseat him. The accusations stirred up a hornet's nest. Enraged by the story and dismissing its content as untrue, the vice president filed a civil suit against the magazine in December that year and demanded a formal apology. The lawsuit sent shockwaves throughout the nation because it was the first such case filed by a vice president against the press.
After protracted legal proceedings, the long-awaited verdict came in April this year. The court found all seven defendants from the magazine not guilty of libel, but ordered the magazine's editor-in-chief Yang Chao (
The judge based his ruling on Council of Grand Justice's Constitutional Interpretation No. 509, delivered in July 2000, which significantly shifted the burden of proof from the defendant in a libel case to the plaintiffs by formally embracing the doctrine of actual malice and recognizing libel defendants' right not to incriminate themselves.
Established by the US Supreme Court in the case of the The New York Times versus Sullivan in 1964, the doctrine holds that to safeguard freedom of speech and the press, a public official who brings a libel action against critics of his or her official conduct must prove "actual malice" by the defendants.
Although the doctrine has in effect been commonly upheld, it was not until the Grand Justices' interpretation two years ago that it was articulated for the first time by Taiwan's judicial system.
The request for an interpretation of the Constitution was moved by a former editor in chief and reporter of Business Weekly magazine, who were convicted of libel for printing defamatory stories in 1996 against then minister of transportation and communications Tsai Chao-yang (
Defamation is both a civil and a criminal offense in Taiwan.
The magazine reported that the minister had embezzled NT$2.78 million to renovate his home. But Tsai denied the reports and sued the magazine. The magazine was found guilty but then applied for an interpretation of the Constitution by the grand justices regarding the protection of press freedom.
Following the grand justices' interpretation in 2000, the magazine appealed against the guilty verdict, hoping that it would be exonerated because it believed its report about Tsai to be true. But in January 2002, the Taiwan High Court sustained the guilty verdict on the grounds that the magazine had failed to verify the accuracy of the report even though it had sufficient time to do so. The editor in chief Huang Hung-jen (
The case was significant because it resulted in the first guilty verdict in a libel case based on Interpretation 509.
But while the interpretation held that defendants shall not be punished for defamation as long as they provide evidence that their belief in the veracity of the statement or report at issue was reasonable, it fell short of decriminalizing defamation altogether.
Ruling that based on what it termed "the current state of the country," the Council of Grand Justices found that the defamation law does not intrude on freedom of expression and that criminal proceedings remain appropriate and constitutional. The grand justices held that civil proceedings were an inadequate mechanism on their own, as they conferred a form of impunity on the wealthy, who, they held, could afford to pay the damages levied upon them for defaming others.
While the interpretation's adoption of the actual malice doctrine was heralded as a step forward in the protection of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, that it upheld the constitutionality of the criminality of defamation led to criticism from many civil liberty groups, legal experts and members of the media that the council missed a great opportunity to clarify how the Constitution was intended to protect freedom of expression.
From the perspective of press freedom, the spirit of Interpretation No. 509 should be viewed as a minimum requirement for quality news reporting: press freedom is entitled to maximum protection but subject to reasonable limitations, such as those protecting a person's public reputation from erroneous reporting.
Journalists should work to raise the standards of the profession by striving to achieve the highest degree of accuracy possible in their reporting.
Regulation of media
The cut-throat competition that has accompanied the rapid growth of both the print media and cable TV has fostered many unprofessional practices in the media. Lawsuits in which members of the media are named as defendants, be they for libel or breach of privacy, are now commonplace.
Next magazine, launched as recently as May of last year, has been involved in five lawsuits in regard to its paparazzi, muckraking style. In the name of the public's right to know and of press freedom, Scoop Weekly last December gave away a VCD featuring former politician Chu Mei-feng (璩美鳳) during a sexual liason.
Frequent privacy violations and inaccurate reporting in the media of late have prompted the government to propose the promulgation of a "mass media law." Some fear the proposed law might amount to the reimposition of the former Publishing Law, just repealed in January 1999, which gave KMT regime much of its license to control the media.
But the government has argued that it is high time to properly regulate a mass media that has proven incapable of regulating itself. Hence, no doubt, Minister Chen's comments.
In fulfilling its role as the fourth estate, the Taiwan's media must strive to perform its function as the guardian of democracy and the public interest. In doing so, however, the media also must be aware of its social responsibility and exercise a reasonable degree of self-regulation, particularly when it comes to safeguarding the national interest and national security.
It has been just 14 years since the lifting of the ban on news agencies and more time will be needed for Taiwan to have the kind of sound legal and institutional environment within which the media can prosper and press freedom can truly prevail.
Such an outcome will require a concerted effort on the part of the government, the media and the people.
Rich Chu is the editor in chief of the Taipei Times and Wu Pei-shih is an Opinion Page editor for the newspaper.
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