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The enemies of Taiwan's press freedoms
By Parris H. Chang
Taiwan News Review
2012-06-04 10:19 AM
When President Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party(DPP) stepped down in 2008, Taiwan was ranked Free in the 2008 edition of “Freedom in the World,” Freedom House’s survey of political rights and civil liberties, and in the 2008 version of “Freedom of thee Press.” Freedom House is a Washington-basedindependent, non-governmental organization that supports the expansion of freedom around the world, and has been monitoring political rights and civil liberties in Taiwan since 1972. There are acute concerns in Taiwan and abroad that President Ma Ying-jeou and his Chinese Nationalist Party(KMT) may reverse Taiwan’s hard-won democratic freedoms.

--March toward a free and democratic Taiwan--

The lifting of the 38-year old martial law in July 1987 was an important political milestone in Taiwan’s liberal and democratic changes. It legally permitted the DPP and other opposition parties to be established, and also allowed the launching of new television stations and newspapers to enhance press freedom. Not long thereafter, the TGGH, which symbolizes political repression and press censorship was disbanded.

Especially after the passing of President Chiang Ching-kuo in January 1988, the pace of Taiwan’s political changes were markedly accelerated. Unlike Chiang who engaged in political tinkering in order to preserve the power and control of the mainlander KMT elite, President Lee Teng-huin who succeeded Chiang was a native Taiwanese and a democrat, and genuinely committed to dismantling the KMT alien rule and constructing a system of democracy in Taiwan, and had forged reform measures to the effect.

Chief among these measures was a bold move to retire the senior members of Legislative Yuan(LY), who were elected on the mainland before 1947 and had remained in office ever since without reelection, and call a general election in 1992 to elect all the LY members by voters in Taiwan. In a single stroke, President Lee destroyed the political myth and the claim of many KMT leaders that the government of Taiwan(Republic of China)is the government of China.

An equally important measure was to institute a new presidential election system--direct election of Taiwan’s future president by the citizens of Taiwan. In the past, the presidents were elected by the members of the National Assembly, who represented different provinces of China, but their constituencies have come under the control of Chinese Communists since 1949, hence the legitimacy and legality of their representation have long become untenable. The conservative KMT power-holders, including Ma ying-jeou, were strongly opposed to the change because they were apprehensive that direct and popular election of the president would favor native Taiwanese candidate. On the other hand, however, most Taiwanese people wish to be the master of their own house and support the new system which underscore the democratic principle of “consent of the governed” and popular sovereignty. In response to people’s demand, including the DPP, President Lee was emboldened to push through the new system in the KMT Central Committee and the National Assembly.

In March 1996, Taiwan held its first direct popular presidential election , and nominees of the KMT and the DPP and independent candidates were in the race to contend for the office. Rightly or wrongly Chinese Communist leaders saw the election as a disguised declaration of Taiwan independence, and fired missiles at Taiwan waters and launched military exercises to intimidate Taiwan’s voters and disrupt Taiwan’s democratic process. Beijing’s provocations boomeranged, as the United States dispatched 2 carrier battle groups to the waters near Taiwan to monitor and, if necessary, intervene against China’s military actions. Moreover, Lee Teng-hui was elected with 54 percent of the popular votes, Beijing’s virulent attack on him notwithstanding. Indeed, Taiwan’s democratic changes has come a long way since 1987. The peaceful and orderly transfer of power from President Lee Teng-hui to the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian captured the worldwide attention and approval, and belied Mao Zedong’s dictum that political power grows from the gun barrels and provided further evidence to show the theory of “Asian values” false--some despots in China and Southeast Asia used to claim that democracy is not good or possible in Asian.

The DPP government led by President Chen was severely hampered by the KMT and other parties , as they controlled the LY and used their majority to oppose and stonewall against Chen’s reform programs. Nevertheless, the LY passed a legislation requiring political parties(primarily the KMT) to withdraw from the ownership and management of TV and other media outlets.

There is greater freedom of expression in Taiwan, as individuals and political groups are free to openly advocate Taiwan’s independent nationhood or unification with China.

--Escape from Freedom--

During President Chen’s tenure, Taiwan’s media environment was one of the freest in Asia, according to Freedom House.There were 360 privately-owned papers and numerous radio and TV stations in Taiwan, with a vigorous and diverse coverage on international and domestic developments, including news and critique on government policies as well as official wrong doing, corruption and scandals.

But journalists and observers at home and abroad have expressed concerns that press freedom in Taiwan has been backsliding since Ma took over the Presidency in 2008. The survey of Freedom House indicates that Taiwan’s press freedom was ranked 32nd among all nations in the world in 2008, but Taiwan’s scores have declined three years in a row, slipping 11 spots to 43rd in 2009, to 47th in 2010 and to 48th in 2011. Why and how has Taiwan’s press freedom reverted?

Whereas President Ma and his KMT regime refrain from a wholesale press censorship, as Taiwan is now a free and vibrant democracy, they do not welcome pointed and ruthless criticism of Ma’s policies and leadership performance from the media and the opposition parties. Ma is very proud, some says arrogant, and feels hurt by his very low popular approval rating. For these and other reasons, they have been doing what they can to reassert control over the media. They started with such state-funded media outlets as Central News Agency and Public Television Service, which used to be noted for their news objectivity and political neutrality, using various measures like appointments/ removals of managers and anchor persons and program reviews to shape what are the news that fit to print or air.

Apple Daily and Next Weekly, two very popular outlets of Next Media, have been ruthless ,outspoken and timely in their expose of government wrongdoing and scandals, causing much headache to the Ma government.. Not surprisingly, the requests by Next Media to launch a new cable TV station, NEXT TV, was repeatedly denied by National Communication Commission, a state- controlled agency. Many in Taiwan’s media circles remember well that the TGGH and GIO often resorted to licensing to control freedom of the press.

The resourceful KMT regime has other tricks--it can resort to bribery to get good press, if other means fail. In December 2010, Dennis Huang, a veteran China Times journalist, resigned to protest the proliferation of favorable coverage purchased by both government and business. The practice of so-called “embedded marketing,” advertising cloaked as news, is a flagrant corruption of free press, and repugnant to an honorable and respectable journalist like Mr. Huang , who would not condone the evil and chose to go public to expose it.

--Beijing’s information warfare in Taiwan--

China Times was once a first-rate paper and had the largest circulation in Taiwan. Under the leadership of its founder, Mr. Yu Chi-chung, a man of integrity and moral conviction, the paper fought against press censorship of the KMT martial law regime and strived to promote Taiwan’s liberalization and political reform. Since Mr. Yu’s passing last decade, China Times has degenerated and its new owner Tsai Eng-meng, a businessman with huge investments in China, has a different agenda.

Tsai is overtly KMT, and has been criticized by press freedom advocates for whitewashing news about China to protect his business interest. A notorious example is a commentary in WANT Daily, an outlet of the China Times Group, on June 4th, 2010; the article discussed the 1989 Tiananmen incident, but failed to touch on the military crackdown on protests and the massacre of protesters in Beijing on that day in 1989, The omission was no accident, for in an interview with Washington Post, Mr. Tsai went so far to defend Beijing’s handling of the protests, and asserted that no one was killed in Tiananmen.

In the past four years Beijing has worked with and through Taiwan businessmen to acquire and control TV stations and printed media to wage information and political warfare. Chinese communists excel in the united front operations and have co-opted owners of media organizations and writers to propagate politically “correct” information and intervene in Taiwan’s political process, i.e. supporting President Ma’s reelection campaign in January 2012.

Beijing’s information warfare has continued and intensified. Observers suspect the “China factor” is behind the removal of Mr. Cheng Hong-yi, the host of a popular talk show, from Sanlih E Television(SET) on May 31. After all, Mr.Cheng is a respectable journalist and his talk show “Big Talk on News” has been in operation for 10 years with a very high rating. Precisely because his show has a huge following, Cheng and his quests in the show are often critical of Ma and his policies on the one hand, and express staunch support for an independent Taiwan on the other hand, Cheng has to go.

We must point out emphatically that Beijing’s threat to press freedom concerns not only Taiwan’s journalist, but also foreign journalists based in Taiwan. Since 2010 if not earlier, international reporters working in Taiwan have become targets of cyber attacks from China. Beware: the Big brother is watching over you and wants to read your mail if your work relates to Taiwan and China.

(Dr.Parris H.Chanf is Chair Professor of General Education at Toko University and the CEO of the Institute of Political, Economic and Strategic Studies.)

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