Attacks on the Press 2003: Taiwan

Taiwan’s media continued to operate with little interference in 2003, though the conviction of a reporter on charges of revealing state secrets renewed an ongoing debate about the importance of national security concerns versus press freedom.

Tensions remained high between Taiwan and mainland China, which considers Taiwan a renegade province and has threatened to take the territory by force. As a result, President Chen Shui-bian’s government is very sensitive about media coverage of the military and national security affairs. In recent years, the government has utilized vaguely worded national security laws to prosecute journalists who report on sensitive political issues. In July, the High Court concluded a 3-year-old case by sentencing Hung Che-cheng, a reporter for the now defunct Jin Pao (Power News), to 18 months in prison, suspended for three years, on sedition charges. The government alleged that Hung revealed military secrets by reporting that a Chinese warship entered the Taiwan Straits during President Chen’s 2000 inauguration. Liu Chih-chung, a Taiwanese army officer, is already serving a two-year sentence for providing the journalist with the so-called secrets.

In response to recent prosecutions of reporters on national security charges, Taiwanese journalists have pointed out that existing laws are too vague and do not spell out clear definitions of “state secrets.” In January, Taiwan’s legislature, the Legislative Yuan, passed the National Secrets Protection Law, which may help clarify the issue by setting clearer legal boundaries. The new law, which went into effect on October 1, classifies three categories of confidential material and sets a penalty of up to seven years in prison for revealing state secrets. It is not yet clear what, if any, impact the new legislation will have on press freedom.

Tensions with the People’s Republic of China also played out in the cross-straits media exchanges that have been set up in recent years. In February, the Taiwanese government suspended broadcasts of China’s state-owned China Central Television in response to the mainland’s refusal to broadcast Taiwanese television stations. The ban was still in effect at year’s end.

The contentious issue of Taiwanese independence will likely be a focus of the presidential election scheduled for March 2004, in which Chen, who supports formal independence from the mainland, will run against Kuomintang (KMT, or nationalist) party candidate Lien Chan. At year’s end, cross-straits relations had deteriorated to the lowest point in years after Beijing protested Chen’s plan to hold a public referendum asking China to remove missiles aimed at Taiwan.

Chen’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) took concrete steps in 2003 toward eradicating political ownership of media outlets, which has long been an issue of contention between government officials and press freedom advocates. The DPP proposed revisions to existing broadcasting legislation that would ban civil servants, officials, and political parties from owning, funding, or holding key positions in radio and television companies. All of Taiwan’s four major commercial noncable broadcasting outlets–China Television Company, Chinese Television System, Taiwan Television Enterprise, and Formosa Television–are at least partially owned by either the ruling DPP or the KMT, which ruled Taiwan from 1949 until 2000. Some of the stations are widely considered to have a political slant, yet the recent proliferation of independent cable broadcasters has diluted their political influence by giving Taiwanese audiences a broader range of programming.

In June, Chen, who is also chairman of the DPP, called on his party colleagues to show support for the proposal by quitting their media jobs. In response, 12 DPP officials announced at a party meeting in September that they would do so, including legislator Trong Chai, the founder and chairman of Formosa Television. In December, the Legislative Yuan passed the revisions. Under the new laws, all political parties are required to sell their stake in broadcasting stations within two years.

Taiwan’s free media often serves as its own best defense, as was evidenced in April, when the government proposed a government-backed system for evaluating news coverage. The Government Information Office announced that it had hired a private foundation to rate the content of the six major Chinese-language newspapers according to standards of justice, objectivity, appropriateness, and accuracy. The evaluation results were to be published every two months. Journalists immediately responded with outrage and accused the government of interfering with the free press. Within a few days, Premier Yu Shyi-kun announced that the plan had been scrapped, but he encouraged the media to practice self-discipline to rein in sensationalistic and inaccurate reporting.