Taiwan’s free and feisty media continued to report aggressively on everything from sensitive political issues to colorful celebrity scandals despite several high-profile government efforts to rein in controversial reporting.
Taiwan’s strained relationship with mainland China, which considers Taiwan a renegade province, ensured that national security would remain a highly controversial topic. Balancing press freedom with national security concerns became the focus of a heated public debate in Taiwan after officials cracked down on two publications for articles that allegedly revealed government secrets.
In March, authorities raided the offices of Next (Yi Chou-kan) magazine and tried to prevent distribution of an article that revealed details of secret bank accounts allegedly used by former president Lee Teng-hui’s government to buy influence abroad. Prosecutors charged reporter Shieh Chung-liang, the article’s author, with endangering national security. (Shieh, a veteran investigative journalist, was a 1997 recipient of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award.) Huang Ching-lung, editor-in-chief of the Chinese-language daily China Times -Chung-kuo Shih-pao), was also charged in March with endangering national security after his paper ran a story based on the same official documents.
In response to a protest letter from CPJ criticizing the government’s use of national security charges against journalists, President Chen Shui-bian–himself a former magazine editor and political prisoner–wrote to CPJ executive director Ann Cooper, stating that “the essence of democracy should never be quelled under the pretext of national security, nor should the flag of national security be used as a cover for undermining press freedom.” The initial frenzy over the case abated after prosecutors could not determine whether official documents used by Next and the China Times were in fact classified. Legal proceedings against Shieh and Huang have stalled, although the charges against them still stand.
The case highlighted journalists’ concerns that the government abuses the “state secret” label by applying it to any issue that could be politically embarrassing. In the wake of the controversy, the Cabinet rushed to approve the pending National Secrets Protection Law, which may help clarify official standards by delineating three categories of confidential material. The Legislative Yuan, the government’s lawmaking body, rejected the same bill in 2001, and it is scheduled to be passed in January 2003.
A draft Government Information Disclosure Bill, which would obligate all major government bodies to disclose information requested by the public, was also submitted to the Legislative Yuan. The measure would exempt information protected under the state secrets law.
While Taiwan’s diverse press–which includes more than 300 Chinese- and English-language newspapers, several commercial and public broadcasting stations, and a major national news agency–has distinguished itself with its political reporting, it has also developed a reputation for tabloid-style exposés on crime, celebrities, and politicians. Lurid and aggressive reporting on several celebrity scandals in 2002 inspired Justice Minister Chen Ding-nan to declare that Taiwan’s media had abused their freedom and created a “dictatorship of the press.”
In April, the Taipei District Court ruled against the weekly The Journalist (Hsin Hsin-wen Chou-kan) in a libel suit brought in 2000 by Vice President Annette Lu after the magazine reported that Lu had provided information to editors about a romantic affair between President Chen and an aide. Lu denied the story and asked for an apology from the magazine. The court’s ruling declared that The Journalist‘s report was “fictitious” and ordered the editor, Lee Ming-chun, to publish a 400-word correction in major newspapers and to personally read a clarification to be broadcast over major television and radio networks during prime-time hours for three consecutive days.
In October, a group of at least 10 men stormed the offices of Next and destroyed equipment in apparent retribution for the publication’s reporting on a criminal gang called the Sun. Soon after the attack, media outlets in Taiwan received a fax signed by the leader of the Sun declaring that, “Next has dared to provoke the Sun and myself and should be warned that we vow to drive the magazine from Taiwan.” Despite the incident, which was the second violent attack on the magazine in less than two years, Next owner Jimmy Lai plans to launch a Taiwan version of his popular Hong Kong tabloid Apple Daily next spring.
Shieh Chung-liang, Next
The offices of the weekly Next (Yi Chou-kan) were raided by government officers after authorities accused the magazine of endangering national security by publishing an article revealing details of secret bank accounts that former president Lee Teng-hui’s government allegedly used to fund international lobbying efforts and to pay various countries to maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Investigators also searched the magazine’s printing plant and the home of Shieh, the journalist who wrote the article. The article, titled, “Lee Teng-hui Illegally Used 3.5 Billion Taiwan Dollars,” appeared in the March 21 edition of the magazine.
Police confiscated about 160,000 copies of the issue, according to sources at Apple Daily, Next‘s Hong Kong-based sister publication. Despite the raid, copies of the magazine were available on newsstands that evening, according to news reports. The National Security Bureau issued a statement declaring that officials had conducted the raid and confiscation to “protect national security and … the interests and safety of our international friends and relevant officials.” In response, Next executive editor Pei Wei told reporters that the public had a right to know about the secret accounts.
On March 26, High Court prosecutors questioned Shieh during the investigative stage of legal proceedings against him, but the journalist refused to divulge the source for his story. Next, a popular, tabloid-style news magazine, is published by Next Media Ltd., which is owned by Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai.
In a related case, Huang Ching-lung, editor of the Chinese-language daily China Times (Chung-kuo Shih-pao), was charged with endangering national security based on a similar article about the secret government funds that ran in the March 20 edition of that paper.
In a March 20 letter to President Chen, CPJ expressed concern that Next was accused of “endangering national security” for reporting on a topic of legitimate public concern.
On March 26, President Chen responded to CPJ executive director Ann Cooper, stating his belief that “the essence of democracy should never be quelled under the pretext of national security, nor should the flag of national security be used as a cover for undermining press freedom.” On April 1, CPJ replied to President Chen’s letter, urging him to ensure that charges of endangering national security are not misused in any of the legal proceedings against Shieh, Huang, or other journalists.
Legal proceedings against Shieh stalled after prosecutors were unable to determine whether official documents used in Next‘s reporting were in fact classified, but the charges against him still stand.
Huang Ching-lung, China Times
Huang, editor-in-chief of the Chinese-language daily China Times (Chung-kuo Shih-pao), was charged in March with endangering national security after his paper ran a story on secret bank accounts used by former President Lee Teng-hui’s government to buy influence abroad. The article appeared in the March 20 edition of the paper. Because an anonymous reporter wrote the story, the government charged Huang, according to sources at China Times.
The article, based on classified government documents, revealed that in 1994, former president Lee authorized the use of US$11 million from the secret funds to pay the South African government, then led by President Nelson Mandela, to extend diplomatic relations with Taiwan for three years. In 1997, South Africa officially cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan when it established diplomacy with China.
On March 20, the National Security Bureau issued a statement declaring that, “We protest the daily’s move and plan to embark on litigation in court.” Officials at the newspapers immediately agreed to turn over relevant documents to the police, so authorities did not attempt to censor the publication, according to international press reports.
That day, police raided the offices and confiscated copies of the weekly Next (Yi Chou-kan) magazine, which had published a similar article based on the same official documents. Shieh Chung-liang, the journalist who wrote the Next magazine article, was accused of endangering national security and ordered not to leave the country.
On April 1, CPJ wrote to President Chen Shui-ban, urging him to ensure that charges of endangering national security are not misused in any of the legal proceedings against Shieh, Huang, or other journalists. Legal proceedings against Huang stalled after prosecutors were unable to determine whether official documents used in the China Times reporting were in fact classified, but the charges against him still stand.
At about 1 p.m. at least 10 men stormed the Next (Yi Chou-kan) offices in the capital, Taipei, destroying office equipment and carrying away two computers. Three security guards were injured when they tried to stop the assailants. Next, a popular, tabloid-style weekly magazine, is owned by Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai.
Pei Wei, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, has linked the attack to Next‘s reporting on a criminal group called the Sun. According to a report in the Apple Daily, a Hong Kong-based sister publication of Next, the assailants were wearing black T-shirts with Chinese charac- ters meaning “the Sun Group” written on the back, an apparent reference to the Sun branch of the Heaven’s Way Alliance, an underground criminal group.
On October 8, media outlets in Taiwan received a faxed letter signed by a leader of the Sun claiming responsibility for the attack. The letter stated that, “Next has dared to provoke the Sun and myself and should be warned that we vow to drive the magazine from Taiwan,” said a report in the China Times Evening News. On October 22, police arrested 17 alleged members of the Sun Group on suspicion of carrying out the attack.