Attacks on the Press 2001: Taiwan

An independent and lively press remains a bedrock of Taiwan’s democratic society, though debates over the limits of free expression persist. The media’s penchant for covering scandals was checked by a high-profile lawsuit lodged by the vice president and by an attack on the racy tabloid Taiwan Next. Meanwhile, Taiwan’s acute concern about safeguarding national security led a court to imprison a military officer for allegedly leaking information to the press.

In January, proceedings began in a libel suit that Vice President Annette Lu filed against the popular weekly news magazine The Journalist. In what was dubbed “the soap opera trial of the century,” the magazine’s editors claimed that Lu had telephoned the editor with information about President Chen Shui-bian’s romantic affair with an aide. Lu, who denied the story, said the magazine had damaged her name and reputation and asked editors to issue an apology. Though criminal penalties for libel, defamation, and insult remain on the books in Taiwan, Lu decided to pursue the case as a civil matter. The case had not been resolved by year’s end.

In August, a group of baseball bat-wielding thugs attacked the offices of the tabloid weekly Taiwan Next, smashing windows and damaging equipment. The paper, owned by Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai, had been threatened before over its risqué coverage of scandals involving celebrities and politicians.

The ongoing war of words with mainland China, which regards Taiwan as a renegade province, had negative repercussions on the media. In August, a military court sentenced Maj. Liu Chih-chung to nine years in jail for charges that included leaking so-called military secrets to the press. The charges stemmed from a story that appeared on the eve of President Chen’s May 20, 2000, inauguration alleging that three warships from mainland China were entering the Taiwan Straits. Observers noted that while the information did not endanger the Taiwanese military, it did embarrass the army. A legislator publicly declared the ruling unfair and “a blow to freedom of speech.”

Soon after the sentencing, President Chen told a gathering of journalists that they should not sacrifice national security in their quest for press freedom but instead should “remain alert to disasters, risks and Beijing’s hostility.”

Recent media exchanges between Taiwan and mainland China were a positive development, although not free of tension. In November 2000, a new policy allowed mainland journalists to be based on the island; the first two correspondents arrived on February 8. However, Chinese officials complained that Taiwan only allowed month-long visits and refused to renew permits for reporters from the official Xinhua News Agency. Meanwhile, Taiwanese officials accused Xinhua of publishing “incorrect reports” about Taiwanese politics.

The contentious Taiwan-mainland relationship worsened in December when President Chen’s Democratic Progressive Party, which supports independence from China, consolidated its power by winning the majority of seats in legislative elections.

After the elections, the government announced the formation of a task force to oversee the reform of Taiwan’s three major television stations. Various political talk shows on the stations, which are all partially owned by different political parties, were accused of slanting election coverage. The task force will work to eradicate political, military, and partisan influence from the broadcast media and support editorial independence, according to government officials.

August 22

Taiwan Yi Zhoukan

Around midday, a group of men wielding baseball bats charged into the downtown Taipei offices of Taiwan Yi Zhoukan (Taiwan Next), a popular tabloid-style newsmagazine, and smashed windows, computers, and office furniture. No one was injured in the attack.

“The violence was apparently a warning to Next Media Ltd.,” said a police officer quoted by Agence France-Presse. Next Media, the company that publishes Taiwan Yi Zhoukan, is owned by Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai.

Though it had only been publishing for about three months at the time of the attack, Taiwan Yi Zhoukan had already developed a reputation for exposing scandals involving politicians, celebrities, and criminals. Pei Wei, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, told reporters that while staffers had received many threatening phone calls in the past as a result of such coverage, “We have no idea who did this.”

On August 23, CPJ wrote to President Chen Shui-bian, urging him to ensure that the police investigation was thorough and professional and that the perpetrators were prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. On September 3, three young men were arrested by Taipei police and charged with perpetrating the attack, according to Taiwan government sources. One suspect, Tzi-wen He, confessed to the crime and said he was angered over Taiwan Yi Zhoukan‘s reports that an assemblyman had links to the pornography industry in Chiayi City. By year’s end the suspects had not been brought to trial and the investigation was ongoing.