Thursday, August 15, 2013

[Updated] Media Freedom is essential to Democratic Quality

Public Television System (PTS) reporter Edd Jhong 
assaulted by the Police

What happened to Public Television System reporter Edd Jhong today at the Executive Yuan was not the first occasion police officers actively barred journalists from doing their job since last year in Taiwan.  Police officers were seen aggressively preventing journalists from documenting a protest or physically trying to remove them from the a protest scene or just flat-out deny them entry to cover a breaking story, because their names are not on "the list".

Last March, at the forced demolition of the Wang Family's apartment in Shihlin District to make way for an urban renewal project called "Wenlin Yuan (文林苑), police officers shined flash lights at journalists' equipments to prevent them from filming and photographing the removal of protesters who were mainly students, and the demolition of the apartment buildings.  Police officers also blocked access to reporters by keeping them away from the area of demolition. (The video of police officers with the flash light can be found here).

Police grabbing the camera of
a Liberty Times reporter
(Photo source: PTS)
On March 27th of this year, during the forced demolition of the Huaguang Community, five or six police officers were seen surrounding one journalist while attempting to take their cameras from them and dragging them away from the protesting students.  Male police officers were also seen following and physically blocking a female reporter from documenting the protest.  

During another wave of demolition at Huaguang Community on April 24th, the police blocked off the area for demolition twelve hours prior to the destruction, causing some of the residents of Huaguang unable to return to their homes.  The same night, a plain clothes police officers guarding the wired gate also wanted to check the journalists' credentials, and if he didn't recognize the media company, they told the reporter that he/she is not on the list and denied them entry. Quite a few journalists had to call their office and have the office verify their identity to the Daan District Police. 

Police removing Next Media reporter
from the Huaguang forced demolition scene
(Photo source: PTS)
The next morning before the demolition, Journalists were again asked to prevent their credentials to exchange a press pass issued by the Taipei Prison.  Some journalists passed the check, but some were asked to leave.  I overheard many journalists complaining, saying they have never experienced such scrutiny before.  What is the Ministry of Justice afraid that the journalists would do?  Document a demolition that the Ministry claimed so confidently to be completely legal? Or did the government not want the public to see property owners being hassled out of their homes by the civil executioners from the Court without completing their packing, or a home owner sitting on the ground, in front of her belongings and home crying?

Then, on July 18th, during the forced demolition of the four homes in Dapu Borough of Miaoli County, protesters demonstrated in front of the President's Office.  After the police buses arrived but before the police began grabbing the protesters and stuffing them into the police bus, the commanding officer spoke into the microphone and gave order for the other officers to "Encircle the media" and to "Keep them out (from the protesters)".  The command escalated the confrontation, now between journalists and the police, as the journalists all tried to still stay on scene to document what happened.  I heard the confrontation between Michael Cole and the Two-line-three-star police officer not far behind me, where the police officer told him to leave, because "this is not [his] country".

J. Michael Cole reprimanded and escorted away from
the Dapu protesters by a CID officer
On July 23rd, a reporter from Taiwan Lihpao (台灣立報) was kept from covering the protest of Dapu supporters in front of the Department of Health and Welfare.  After presenting his press credential, the police officer still wouldn't let him through and sneered him, "Reporter my fart (記者個屁啦!)"

Today, a plain clothes man who refused to provide identification ordered six other police officers to forcibly remove Edd Jhong of PTS from the Executive Yuan courtyard  where he was covering the breaking news that more than twenty Dapu Borough supporters entered the premise of the Executive Yuan and threw eggs and paint balls at the EY building.  The police's reason for manhandling Jhong?  Jhong should've registered with the Executive Yuan's press office first.  Jhong replied, "How am I supposed to register when the news is breaking right in front of us!?"  

The active prevention of journalists from documenting an event is not an isolated incident now.  What is also very disconcerting is the presence of plain clothes, unidentified men, who are often more aggressive and physical with protesters and journalists. 

Media freedom is essential to a consolidated, high quality democracy.  It is as important as having a free and lively civil society, an autonomous and valued political society, rule of law and core institutions such as political parties, elections, electoral rules and legislatures.  The media is the channel through which current events and opinions of the people are formed, transmitted and exchanged.  Journalists are essential, because they are the eyes of the citizen, as it is impossible for the citizen to be everywhere, at breaking event to learn about what's happening.  An authoritarian regimes would always try to monopolize the media and eliminate the journalist's ability to report what is actually happening, so it is easier for the government to manipulate public opinion toward its favor. 

The recent targeting of journalists is a disconcerting trend.  It signals a deterioration of Taiwan's hard-earned democracy and the infringement of the basic rights of its citizens.  This kind of behavior by the government and the law enforcement officers it employs should not be tolerated. 

Additional video of Edd Jhong's ordeal at the Executive Yuan today.

Note: for further discussion or private comments, readers can also reach me at:

Update: The Zhongzheng District Police Chief, in response to inquiries over the manhandling of Edd  Jhong, said he has no authority over the Special Police Sixth Headquarters, and he also suspected Edd Jhong of throwing paint along with the protesters.

Plain clothes "officer" preventing the journalist from Civil Media from entering Huaguang.
Police dragging Edd Jhong of PTS and blocking Zooey Lu of Taiwan Lihpao at the Executive Yuan.
(Photo source: 黃燕如)

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