Thursday, August 15, 2013

Journalists under assault in Taiwan

The ongoing assault on press freedoms is real, and in recent cases it has had nothing to do with China or investment in the media by China-friendly business tycoons

It occurred early in the morning of Aug. 15. A small group of anti-forced evictions activists pretending to be part of a Chinese tour group stormed past the front gate of the Executive Yuan and threw paint and eggs at the building before being overpowered by police.

Just as this was happening, Edd Jhong, a Public Television System (PTS) reporter who had gotten wind of the operation and who was documenting the event was manhandled by six police officers. They surrounded him and dragged him away. A number of them were plainclothes officers who refused to identify themselves. According to accounts, Jhong was told he could not document the breaking news because he had failed to register with them first. (A source in the judicial system informs me that the two protesters who were eventually arrested by police over the incident were taken to a police station and kept there in handcuffs throughout the afternoon, despite strong opposition by lawyers. Expect once again fines and/or sentences that are way out of proportion to the “crime” committed.)

PTS journalist Edd Jhong is dragged away by police
This incident is the latest in a series of assaults on press freedom in Taiwan in recent weeks as the government comes under fire over a number of issues involving land grab and the demolition of people’s homes by the state. Amid escalating protest, police have repeatedly prevented accredited journalists from gaining access to various venues. Even when press passes and credentials were shown, police officers replied with a dismissive wave of the hand or curt responses like “I don’t care, go away.”

I first experienced this in late April during a round of demolitions at the Huaguang (華光) community in Taipei, where authority figures at the site suddenly asked all journalists present to provide additional credentials so they could be issued a badge. This was unprecedented. Anyone who did not obtain a badge would be immediately expelled. The night before, several journalists had complained about police blocking them access to the site. I showed by pass and was given a badge, but several others had to leave.

I witnessed this again during a July 18 protest in front of the Presidential Office over the demolition of four homes in Dapu (大埔), Miaoli County. The first instance was when police cordoned off the area when they began taking protesters away on a bus. The directive was clear and heard by all: “Pull the journalists out,” which made it very difficult for us to document what was going on.

Then, amid the chaos, a three-star police officer pushed me with his shield and screamed at me that I should go away because this wasn’t my country, as if there were no foreign press in Taiwan, with the same rights and responsibilities as local ones. Yes, this was an isolated incident, and yes, it probably tells us more about that particular officer’s xenophobia than the police force in general, but in the current context, it is nonetheless worth mentioning.

Following today’s incident, the Association of Taiwan Journalists (ATJ) issued as statement condemning how police manhandled Mr. Jhong and prevented him from carrying out his duties. The ATJ had already complained about similar incidents at Huaguang.

A protester is held in front of the EY
What the authorities need to understand is that journalists have sources, and that those sources will often share information with them under the premise of confidentiality. Unless the information given them concerns plans to cause serious injury or mass casualties, journalists are under no obligation to alert the authorities, or to reveal their sources. In the present case, “registering” with the authorities prior to the protest would have nipped the act in the bud and alerted police to the planned direct action — a betrayal of sorts; and for journalists, there’s no graver crime than to burn a source.

The ongoing assault on press freedoms is real, and in recent cases it has nothing to do with China or investment in the media by China-friendly business tycoons. Its principal cause is the direct result of an administration that fears bad publicity. The demolitions in Huaguang and Dapu, and the reaction to them, have sparked a strong reaction among Taiwanese, partly because of the government’s apparent indifference to people’s suffering, but also because the victims were ordinary people who could be anyone’s mother of father. Scenes of houses being torn down and of the owners wailing nearby are hard to ignore, just as are those of protesters clashing with police over the same issues. The government’s response is always that people should protest “calmly” and “rationally.” But the very people whose lives have been turned upside down by state rapacity did just that for years, and look what good that did them. People have had enough, and the measures taken are becoming more extreme: eggs and paint bombs are lobbed at public offices, and in the process create images that the authorities would rather were not made public.

Just like terrorism, which I studied and made my profession (that it, the countering of it) for a number of years, direct action requires publicity if it is to be effective. If something like the raid on the Executive Yuan this morning occurs without anyone present to document it, it will have little, if any, impact on policy decisions. Images, drama, are necessary, and journalists are in the best position to provide them.  

Hence the assault on journalists, especially the growing number of reporters who are now siding with the victims rather than the government.

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