Thursday, February 20, 2014

Official intimidation of Taiwanese journalists

Freedom of the press rankings often do not include instances of subtle intimidation by officials, but the impact on journalists’ ability to do their job can be serious

Taiwan watchers always pay great attention to the annual freedom of the press rankings by organizations like Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders. Any drop in rankings, as Taiwan did this year in RSF’s report, slipping from 45th in 2012 to 47th in 2013, inevitably prompts accusations of Chinese interference and malicious controls by the government.

While the above reasons are certainly valid (e.g., the impact of the Want Want China Times Group), other variables — equally important variables — that affect journalists’ ability to conduct their work rarely get mentioned and are almost never used to weigh the quality of the media environment. With regards to Taiwan, two of those readily come to mind.

The first, which I witnessed firsthand on a number of occasions last year as I minored protest movements, were instances in which journalists were blocked access to certain venues by law-enforcement officials at the site, or government workers participating at public hearings. On several occasions, reporters were physically prevented from gaining access to a venue or dragged away by police officers (e.g., the “Edd Jhong incident” at the Executive Yuan); on others, public servants refused to hold public hearings until all reporters had left the room. While such incidents are hard to quantify and to put into numbers for rankings such as those prepared by RSF and FH, they nevertheless have a deleterious impact on the ability of journalists to conduct their work.

In other instances — and this constitutes our second variable — journalists were threatened by government officials after publishing their article. One such incident was made public today, in which Rosa Wang (王立柔), a young female reporter with the Storm Media Group, received an angry call on her personal cell phone on Jan. 29, the day the article that prompted the call was published. The person at the other end of the line, who according to Wang’s account of the matter, berated her for a full six minutes and threatened to contact the chairman of the media organization that employs her, was Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Lai Shyh-bao (賴世葆).

In her article, Wang, whom I have met on several occasions, exposed Lai as having played a central role, using his connections with Premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺), in securing the rather controversial appointment of two anti-gay activists from the Safeguard the Family Alliance on a Ministry of Education committee for gender equality, appointments that drew heavy criticism from various organizations supporting the rights of homosexuals. Among other things, the two members have openly opposed equal treatment for gays and child adoption by same-sex couples in a campaign spearheaded by various Christian organizations. (Interestingly, Lai was present at the large rally against same-sex marriage on Nov. 30, where he spoke out against amendments to Article 972 of the Civil Code.)

Following his angry call, Lai renewed his attack on the young journalist during a press conference on Feb. 19, which prompted the reporter to comment on the matter on her Facebook page.

Needless to say, behavior such as Lai has no place in a democracy that prides itself in having the “freest” media in East Asia. There are proper channels for officials to express their displeasure with news coverage, including press releases, corrections, and if necessary and when warranted, lawsuits. But calling a journalist on her personal cell phone and blasting her for uncovering certain uncomfortable facts isn’t the way to go about it. This is intimidation, pure and simple.

Let’s hope that other Taiwanese journalists will follow Wang’s courageous example and expose any such infractions on the part of the authorities, as their chilling effect on Taiwan’s media environment can be just as nefarious as the behavior of China-friendly media moguls like Tsai Eng-meng (蔡衍明). (Photo by the author)

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