Attacks on the Press 2000: Taiwan

TAIWAN’S FREEWHEELING MEDIA GENERALLY OPERATE with little interference from a government that presents itself as a model for democracy in the region. However, the young administration of President Chen Shui-bian and his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) did suffer a few embarrassments arising from its treatment of (and by) the press. Chen narrowly won election in March, ending more than 50 years of uninterrupted rule by the Nationalist Party.

On October 3, in an effort to discover the source of a leaked government document, Taipei district prosecutors raided the editorial offices of the China Times Express and the homes of two of its editors. The raid happened after the paper published details from a confidential affidavit in the investigation of Liu Kuan-chun, a National Security Bureau adviser who disappeared after allegedly embezzling at least 90 million Taiwan dollars (US$2.9 million). The Association of Taiwan Journalists protested the incident, noting that the prosecutors’ actions violated the Constitution and represented a major step backward for democratic reform in the country.

Just days later, on October 6, the Defense Ministry accused a local reporter of seeking classified military information and referred the case to the High Court for indictment. Hung Che-cheng, a reporter for the newspaper Power Daily, was investigated after he published a story on the eve of the new president’s May 20 inauguration, alleging that three warships from communist China had been spotted outside a harbor in northeastern Taiwan. The story was politically sensitive because Beijing was furious about President Chen’s support of formal Taiwanese independence, and had all but threatened war over his election. (The Nationalist Party had also stoked fears of a looming mainland invasion in a bid to scare voters from choosing Chen’s DPP.)

The most serious threat to press freedom in Taiwan remains the persistence of criminal penalties for libel, defamation, and insult. Vice President Annette Lu threatened to invoke these provisions after a weekly magazine called The Journalist ran a November cover story in which Lu was accused of spreading rumors that President Chen was having an affair. Lu, a fierce pro-democracy activist during the decades of martial law, initially demanded that the magazine publish an apology on the front pages of six major dailies, and have the same apology broadcast by six major media outlets. When The Journalist refused to meet these conditions, Lu’s lawyers announced her decision to pursue civil action on December 14. “Whether or not to file a criminal lawsuit…would depend on the attitude of the weekly,” the lawyers warned.

Though The Journalist has stood by its story, some media observers noted that the case raised concerns about the credibility of the Taiwan press, which has a reputation for rumor-mongering.

The press won a major legal victory at year’s end, with the successful conclusion of a long-running criminal-libel suit pitting the Hong Kong magazine Yazhou Zhoukan against Liu Tai-ying, an influential business manager of Taiwan’s once all-powerful Nationalist Party. The suit arose from an article reporting that Liu had offered US$15 million to U.S. president Bill Clinton’s re-election fund. This was one of the first press articles to expose the role of Taiwan money in the 1996 American presidential elections.

Liu lost the case in April 1997, but almost immediately filed an appeal. On December 29, the High Court acquitted Yazhou Zhoukan, affirming the lower court’s ruling that “a conviction of libel must be based on malicious intent and that when reporting on matters of public interest, the news media will not be liable for libel if it has no malicious intent to defame, has made reasonable reporting efforts, and if it believes in the truth of its report.” The reasoning adopted by the courts relied heavily on a 1997 amicus brief in support of the defendants that was filed by CPJ and 10 major U.S. news organizations, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Dow Jones, The Associated Press, and ABC.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court of Taiwan issued a ruling on an unrelated case that also affirmed the actual malice standard established by the Yazhou Zhoukan decision, thus raising the bar for the prosecution in criminal libel cases.