In a landmark victory for democracy and press freedom, a Taiwan court on April 22 dismissed criminal libel charges against American journalist Ying Chan and Taiwan-based journalist Hsieh Chung-liang. An amicus brief signed by ten prominent United States media companies and the Committee to Protect Journalists on the defendants' behalf was a strong factor in the judge's decision, observers said.
The suit stemmed from an Oct. 25, 1996, article by Ms. Chan, a reporter for the New York Daily News, and Mr. Hsieh in the Hong Kong news weekly Yazhou Zhoukan (Asia Week). The article reported that Liu Tai-ying, business manager for Taiwan's ruling Kuomintang party, had offered $15 million to President Clinton's re-election campaign in a meeting with former White House aide Mark E. Middleton, according to a source who had been present. As the article reported, Liu denied that he had made the offer. The reporters' source for the story, Chen Chao-ping, first publicly confirmed its accuracy, but after being named as a defendant in the criminal libel case, settled the charges against him by stating that he had misinterpreted the meeting.
The judge, Li Wei-shin of the 16th Criminal Tribunal in Taipei, essentially accepted the arguments made by the international media as to why criminal sanctions would be so inappropriate in this case, said Robert Balin, Ms. Chan's U.S. attorney. Balin, who had gone with Ying Chan to Taiwan for an April 15 hearing, said the judge reportedly also indicated in rendering his decision that the Yazhou Zhoukan article was a matter of public interest that should be subject to public comment, that the writers based their work on their investigation and believed the truth of the story, and that there had been no malicious intent to damage Liu's reputation. A civil suit filed by Liu asking for $15 million in damages was also dismissed.
Mr. Balin of the New York firm Lankenau, Kovner, Kurtz & Outten, called the decision "a great day for the press in Taiwan. The court appears to have accepted a fault standard that should protect journalists in the future from precisely this type of criminal proceeding."
The amicus brief in support of the defendants was prepared by Debevoise & Plimpton in New York for ABC, Inc.; The Associated Press; CBS Inc.; Daily News L.P.; Dow Jones & Company, Inc.; The Los Angeles Times and the Times Mirror Company; National Broadcasting Company, Inc.; The New York Times Company; Time Inc.; The Washington Post Company; and CPJ. The signatories based their brief on the principle that "freedom of the press is internationally recognized as a core democratic value that defamation actions can destroy."
During the April 15 hearing, Anthony Lo, Ying Chan's lead counsel, quoted from the brief, which contends that "democracies do not put journalists in jail merely because news stories contain alleged errors of fact" and that "criminal punishment of journalists today often is a tool of governments that do not respect human rights."
It further states that under free speech principles recognized in the United States, Japan, and other democracies, "the court should construe the governing statute to exempt the reporters from liability if they believed in good faith that their article was true."