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DPP cries foul on press freedom

‘ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT’: Freedom House’s latest report on freedom of the press showed that global press freedom declined last year. Taiwan is now ranked No. 43

By Tseng Wei-chen and Fan Cheng-hsiang
Monday, May 04, 2009, Page 1

Pan-green lawmakers yesterday slammed the government over a new report showing that Taiwan had dropped 11 spots in its press freedom ranking.

In response, the Government Information Office (GIO) said the government would work to improve the local media environment.

Although Taiwan kept its “free” status in press freedom, its global ranking dropped to No. 43 from No. 32 last year in the freedom of the press report released by the US-based Freedom House on Friday.

The report said global press freedom declined last year, with twice as many losses as gains. As for Taiwan, Freedom House said the decline was the result of “media in Taiwan fac[ing] assault and growing government pressure.”

“The decline shows there is room for improvement,” GIO Minister Su Jun-pin (蘇俊賓) said, adding that the government attaches great importance to the report and would actively study how to improve the situation.

Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Legislator Huang Wei-cher (黃偉哲) said government intervention was behind the deterioration.

Huang said the manner in which media companies are managed was another reason for the decline, adding that some financial groups, following their purchase of media outlets, had ordered reporters to defend President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and demanded they file reports favorable to the government, minimize criticism and avoid the unification/independence issue.

DPP Legislator Chen Chi-yu (陳啟昱) added that the Ma government’s direct interference in the running of the Central News Agency and Radio Taiwan International last year was a cause for great concern for the International Federation of Journalists.

The government is planning to amend the Satellite Broadcasting Act (衛星廣播電視法) by adding a commentator clause, which is another attempt to restrict press freedom and has resulted in infighting at the National Communications Commission, he said.

Some media hold glaring double standards and have changed the way they report so that what was good in the past is now bad and vice versa to please Ma and the Chinese government, he said, adding it was worrying to see that media outlets would sometimes violate media practice by deliberately spreading false reports.

Last year, Freedom House ranked Taiwan No. 4 in the Asia-Pacific region, trailing only New Zealand, Palau and the Marshall Islands.

This year, Taiwan was tied at No. 7 with Vanuatu. Australia, Japan and Micronesia outranked Taiwan this year.



A man wearing a mask depicting President Ma Ying-jeou stands trial at a mock public indictment in Taipei yesterday aimed at criticizing his actions during his first year in office.






The risks of a crime-fighting pact

By Chiang Huang-chih 姜皇池
Monday, May 04, 2009, Page 8

For many years, the cross-strait situation has allowed fugitives to remain in China. But following protracted negotiations, Taiwan and China have finally signed an agreement to cooperate on crime-fighting and judicial matters. Much of the public will welcome the development in the belief that suspects wanted for serious crimes — economic and otherwise — will be repatriated to face trial if authorities ask for the help of their Chinese counterparts.

This would improve crime fighting efforts, but certain undemocratic aspects of the deal deserve scrutiny.

Article 4, clause 3 stipulates that in cases where one side considers a person a criminal suspect and the other does not, but that involve considerable “harm” to society, the two sides should deal with the matter on a case-by-case basis based on mutual consent. It may be that this regulation was included to cover all eventualities and that it leaves room for interpretation. Although well-meant, such a broad clause could have serious consequences.

Taiwan is a refuge for many Chinese democracy campaigners who reject authoritarian rule.

In China, these people cried out for democracy and rule of law, challenging the Chinese Communist Party and thereby committing “crimes” in the eyes of Beijing.

There are also many Taiwanese who advocate independence. From China’s perspective, they are “splittists” and are considered criminals.

Taiwan is also home to Falun Gong practitioners whose calls for religious freedom are anathema to Beijing. China considers their criticism a source of social unrest and they could therefore fall within the definition of activities that harm society.

Our government may think these worries unfounded, but the weaker signatory to an agreement is more vulnerable to political pressure. Making the content of agreements as precise as possible could help avoid controversy later on. Otherwise, when a dispute arises, the stronger party will try to dodge its responsibilities, while the weaker party will be pressured into honoring the terms of the clause.

Taiwan is becoming increasingly dependent on China economically. In a position of weakness, it may one day find it hard to refuse objectionable extradition requests from Beijing.

If China demands people be repatriated, will our government be able to refuse?

For Taiwanese, activities that Beijing sees as a threat — such as exercising freedom of speech and religion — are part and parcel of democracy. Would our government turn its back on these fundamental values?

Another cause for concern is Article 24, which states that the agreement will take effect once each side has completed the necessary preparations, no more than 60 days after the deal was signed.

It is true that not all international agreements need to be scrutinized by legislative bodies, and there are international examples of agreements taking effect without legislative review.

However, this applies without exception to non-controversial technical agreements where there is no major conflict of interest.

The crime-fighting agreement does not fit this description in either form or substance.

According to constitutional interpretation No. 329 of the Council of Grand Justices, if an agreement signed by government authorities “involves important issues of the nation or rights and duties of the people and its legality is sustained ... [it] should be sent to the Legislative Yuan for deliberation.”

This agreement has a bearing on the rights and duties of all citizens. It will have a strong impact on the nation’s democracy and basic values. How could the government agree to implement this deal within 60 days?

The agreement was formulated and signed without any public participation and the legislature was deprived of its right to scrutinize it. It is an assault on democratic values and the way it has been processed is unconstitutional.

Executive and legislative agencies as well as the public should not let this slip through without further debate.

Chiang Huang-chih is an associate professor in the College of Law at National Taiwan University.


Can police be trusted to grant us our rights?

By Peter Huang 黃文雄
Monday, May 04, 2009, Page 8

‘But what if the police reach a decision unacceptable to the group organizing the demonstration? The draft amendment does not address this scenario.’

The legislature is expected to vote soon on amending the Assembly and Parade Act (集會遊行法). The version of the amendment proposed by the Cabinet would require organizers to report the details of rallies and demonstrations to police. There has been much discussion of the problems with this. I would like to raise the question of whether Taiwan is a police state.

Article 11 of the amendment would grant competent authorities the power to prohibit, restrict or change the planned route of a rally or protest before it starts in three circumstances.

The first of these is extremely ambiguous. The clause applies if there is reason to believe that a gathering poses a clear, actual threat to national security, social order or public interest.

Although the draft uses words like “immediate” and “clear,” the phrase “threat to national security, social order or public interest” is abstract. Who decides what constitutes a threat? The amendment would accord this power to the police departments and precincts where an assembly or parade is scheduled.

But what if the police reach a decision unacceptable to the group organizing the demonstration? The draft amendment does not address this scenario.

Turning to an administrative court would seem to be the only recourse of action. Two scenarios are possible. The first would involve the protest organizers filing for a provisional disposition at an administrative court. The second would be to proceed with the rally in spite of the police’s decision so as not to miss the right timing for the event and to demonstrate that the police were mistaken in their concern. If police pressed charges, the two parties would meet in court.

These options are not a problem for civic groups with sufficient resources, but would still require time and money, as well as certain risks. But would civic groups with limited resources be able to assert their right to freedom of assembly as guaranteed in the Constitution and international conventions?

Unfortunately, this would be for the police to decide. Yet freedom of assembly is so fundamental that we must ask: If the freedom to exercise this right is granted or denied by the police, is Taiwan a police state?

What constitutes a police state is determined by many small factors, including whether marginalized groups with the greatest need to exercise their rights are discriminated against.

The Cabinet’s version of the amendment requires further review. President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has praised the proposal and there is speculation that the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) will call on its caucus to push the amendment through. If this happens without further discussion and revision, there is a risk that the goal of amending this act will not be realized.

Above all, this version of the amendment runs counter to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights recently ratified by the legislature.

Peter Huang is chairman of Amnesty International Taiwan.

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