Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Presidential Office snubs foreign media on ECFA briefings

The Taiwan Foreign Correspondent’s Club (TFCC) yesterday lodged a protest with the Presidential Office after being informed that foreign reporters would not be allowed to attend Ma’s briefing. The directive is expected to apply to all subsequent monthly briefings. The TFCC was told that foreign correspondents would be able to watch in real time from the Presidential Office press room.

TFCC president Robin Kwong said he only learned of yesterday’s briefing a day earlier.

In a letter to the Presidential Office, Kwong wrote that the decision “set a regrettable and unhealthy precedent for future interactions between the Presidential Office and foreign press,” adding that ECFA negotiations “will have repercussions for those living beyond [Taiwan, who] have as much a right to know about what is happening as those primarily served by the local media.”

The arrangements for yesterday’s press conference were “unacceptable” and the TFCC would be “deeply outraged” if this were to become a template for future briefings on ECFA, Kwong said. (The above appeared in the Taipei Times yesterday.)

I communicated this with Reporters Without Borders Asia, which responded by calling it a "disturbing development."

What is the Ma administration afraid of? Why should foreign media, by virtue of their not being invited to the briefings, not be allowed to ask questions? For an administration that claims that it's main problem in selling the ECFA is poor communication, excluding foreign media is an incomprehensible move. This decision also lends credence to claims by Freedom House and other observers that press freedoms under the Ma administration have suffered, so much so that while attending a dinner at the official residence of Canada's de facto ambassador to Taiwan on Tuesday night, many guests asked me to comment on freedom of the press in Taiwan and whether it was true that the environment is becoming less friendly to journalists — and that was before the foregoing news were publicized!

Interestingly, state-owned CNA wrote that: “At Ma’s press conference, which drew large numbers of local and foreign reporters, he directed most of his comments to local farmers and workers, detailing reasons why Taiwan needs to sign a trade pact China,” which obviously isn’t right (italics added).

Kwong's full letter, a copy of which I received as a TFCC member:

February 9, 2010

The Presidential Office

To Spokesperson Tony Wang:

The Taiwan Foreign Correspondents Club would like to register its protest over President Ma Ying-jeou's plan to hold regular monthly press conferences on Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) that are open only to local media. We believe this would set a regrettable and unhealthy precedent for future interactions between the Presidential Office and foreign press.

ECFA is a matter of interest to those beyond Taiwan. What your government decides to sign with the People's Republic of China will have repercussions for those living beyond this island and they have as much a right to know about what is happening as those primarily served by the local media.

Even within Taiwan, public opinion of ECFA will hinge on how the agreement is viewed internationally. It would be in Taiwan's best interest if the leaders and businessmen of other countries are kept well informed of ECFA, and foreign press is crucial in this regard.

We find your arrangements for this afternoon's press conference unacceptable and would be deeply outraged should it become a template for future press conferences on ECFA. We see no reason why foreign media should be excluded from asking questions of the President, nor why we should not be allowed to attend the press conference.

We also find your argument that we could always just watch the event from a CCTV feed in the press room disingenuous, considering the fact that neither the Presidential Office nor the Government Information Office even bothered to notify foreign press of this event in advance.

The Club, which represents the majority of foreign media in Taiwan, therefore urges your office to reconsider the decision to bar foreign reporters from tomorrow's and future press conferences. This simply does not befit a government that has been lauded for its respect for the freedom of the press.

Yours sincerely,

Robin Kwong
President, Taiwan Foreign Correspondent's Club


Scott said...

I am wondering-- because "foreigner" does not always mean the same thing in Taiwan as it does in most countries.

In this case, I am assuming it means any reporter whi is not Taiwanese or Chinese is not allowed at the briefings. Is that correct? What about non-Taiwanese or non-Chinese reporters based in Taiwan and working for a Taiwanese media company?

I can't help but wonder, because the concepts of nationality, culture and ethnicity are used so interchangeably in Taiwan, perhaps because not enough people see a need to distinguish between them.

J. Michael said...


Foreign media is all news organizations that are not owned by Taiwanese. This includes AP, AFP, Reuters, Bloomberg, the Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, Kyodo and others. Conversely, the Taipei Times is considered a local media, even if some of its reporters are foreigners. What this means is that the directive did not target "foreigners" so much as foreign-owned news organizations.

This said, there was another limitation yesterday: Only members of the local journalists' association were allowed to attend. This means that even if the Taipei Times is a local news organization, someone like me would not have been allowed in, as I am not a member of that association.

Scott said...

Will reporters from Chinese news agencies be allowed?

I have no idea what kind of people are eligible to join the local journalists' association, but it sounds like Ma's office is counting on there being no non-Taiwanese members in the association.

In practice, I assume it will mean that only reporters who hold relatively secure and senior positions will be there-- which means reporters who (because they have relatively more at stake career-wise) will be more sensitive or amenable to the policy directives of the newspaper's or TV company's CEOs (and therefore less willing to risk upsetting people by asking hard questions).

I think the CCP has found similar self-censorship mechanisms to work quite well in China.