A Break With the Past

Taiwan calls an end to martial law





The year was right -- 1984--and the words certainly had an Orwellian sound to them. It was last October when a select group of men gathered at the Armed Services Officers’ Club in Taipei to discuss the scourge of “thought pollution” and the “rampant flood of illegal opinion.” “Cultural warfare must be expanded and waged more effectively,” declared one government official. Those with “opinions that slander the head of state,” vowed another senior officer, “must be severely punished.” The participants were high-ranking figures in the government of Taiwan, and they were apparently plotting a task worthy of Orwell’s Thought Police: smothering Taiwan’s political opposition by a dose of censorship.

The minutes of that meeting, leaked from within the Taipei government, soon appeared in three dissident magazines. That tended to support the contention of Taiwan’s beleaguered opposition that the ruling party, the Kuomintang (KMT), has stepped up its campaign against the dissident press. And actions since have left even less doubt.

According to the International Committee for Human Rights in Taiwan, a monitoring organization based in the Netherlands, acts of government censorship are dramatically on the rise.

The group listed 187 incidents last year, compared to an annual average of 30 prior to 1984. In addition, Taiwan’s League of Opposition, an outlawed anticensorship group, has already documented 207 acts of confiscation, banning and suspension of magazines this year. For their part, KMT officials deny any orchestrated crackdown; the increased acts of censorship, they insist, are simply a statistical outgrowth of the mushrooming number of publications recently venturing more open criticism of the government. “A lot of people say we are too strict in dealing with freedom of speech,” says Lee Mo-ping, head of the publication affairs department. “I think we are too lenient.”

Taiwan’s constitution guarantees freedom of speech, but that right has often been a casualty of Taiwan’s perpetual state of martial law, which permits censorship of material that “confuses public opinion and affects the morale of the public and the armed forces.” The sole judge of what might confuse public opinion or affect morale in Taiwan is, of course, the government.

The KMT began loosening some of its restraints on the press five years ago. The result was a great leap forward in the number of independent magazines--and Taiwan’s emboldened opposition took full advantage of their long leash. Dissident publications became increasingly harsh in the tenor and substance of their criticisms, and they found no shortage of incidents to write about. None was more embarrassing to the Taipei government than the murder late last year of Chinese-American political writer Henry Liu. In April Taiwan’s former military intelligence chief was found guilty of instigating the crime, and two of his deputies were convicted of being accessories to the murder.

The KMT’s tolerance snapped. Beginning in March, agents of the Taiwan Garrison Command, the chief martial-law agency, raided the offices of such dissident publications as Torch and Progress--often without search warrants--and confiscated more than 20,000 magazines. To prevent distribution of publications that escape such confiscation, the command now posts hundreds of agents at newsstands and bookstores to identify buyers as well as intimidate dealers from selling.

Additional “legal” pressure comes in the form of libel suits that often proceed directly from charges to sentencing with barely a semblance of due process. Defendants have been denied the right to present evidence or witnesses, and the damage settlements-such as the $75,000 fine slapped on the magazine Voice of Thunder Weekly in June--are excessively punitive by Taiwan standards.

Shabby Practices: But even critics of the KMT’s tactics acknowledge that Taiwan’s dissident press is often guilty of shabby journalistic practices. Antonio Chiang, editor of the opposition Asian Weekly, concedes that many publications are run by people completely inexperienced in the rudiments of reporting. But he and others note that they are denied the normal process of newsgathering. Dissident publications are not permitted to have reporters. The publications have devised their own tactics of survival, however. In order to skirt frequent suspensions, editors purchase a handful of licenses, which they call “spare tires,” with different names that can be used interchangeably for the same magazine. The publications also glean information from reporters in the mainstream press who are frustrated by establishment newspapers that refuse to print anything that remotely smacks of criticisms of the government.
Still, the KMT crackdown has left much of the opposition press reeling--and groping in the dark for some way of striking back. Chiang, for example, has seen his Asian Weekly--considered one of the most reliable of dissident magazines--banned for five weeks straight, and he says he has no idea why. “I have asked (the government),” he says. “But we don’t even know who’s responsible. Everyone is faceless.”

In terms of numbers, dissident newspapers and magazines are hardly a threat to the KMT. At the beginning of the year, opposition publications accounted for a mere 14 of Taiwan’s 247 political magazines; now, only seven have survived. Still, the battle goes on. Already the mavericks have organized demonstrations and are planning to petition the government. “I don’t expect much,” says Chiang. “But I plan to fight to the end.”


© 2013 Paul J. Mooney