Taiwan, with its lively and diverse media, reveled in its reputation as a bastion of free speech and democracy. Government leaders made numerous public pronouncements on the importance of promoting press freedom, and advertised their efforts to strengthen civil liberties. In January, the legislature abolished a draconian publishing law that had been used to control the press in the days of authoritarian rule. Since martial law was lifted in 1987, the ordinance had slipped into disuse, but its formal abolition was nevertheless an important symbolic measure.
Chen Chien-jen, a government spokesperson, said that the “anachronistic” provisions of the publishing law were not in keeping with a democratic system. In May, when Taipei hosted the International Press Institute’s annual conference, President Lee Teng-Hui declared that Taiwan “has become one of the most free nations in the world in terms of news reporting and information flow.”
Taipei even admonished neighboring Hong Kong to defend press freedom more vigorously against pressure from authorities in Beijing. The flap began when President Lee, in a July interview with the German radio station Deutsche Welle, said that China and Taiwan should negotiate with each other as two nations. Beijing, which considers Taiwan a renegade province that will eventually be brought back into the fold, attacked Lee’s statement and threatened to use force if necessary to “uphold national sovereignty, dignity, and territorial integrity.” A Hong Kong television station then got into trouble with Beijing authorities for airing an interview on the issue with Taiwan’s de facto envoy to Hong Kong. Finally, Taipei entered the fray, issuing a statement that “Hong Kong authorities should act to ensure an environment of press freedom
Taiwan’s reputation for promoting press freedom is well-deserved, but the reform process remains incomplete. Journalists can still be imprisoned for their work in Taiwan, as criminal penalties for libel, defamation, and insult remain on the books. Statutory reforms are needed to ensure that such offenses are treated under civil law, bringing Taiwan into line with other democracies.