Taiwan has been establishing itself over the years as model of respect for press freedom in Asia. A bill drafted by President Chen Shui-bian’s government, for example, aimed to keep the political parties out of broadcasting. On the other hand, a journalist was given a prison sentence for revealing "military secrets."
Taiwan’s journalists enjoy a level of freedom that is rare in Asia. Investigations into corruption spare no one and editorials are sometimes very critical of the political class. President Chen Shui-bian, who wants to hold a referendum on the fraught issue of Taiwan’s independence, likes to be viewed as someone who defends press freedom. But there are still laws in place that allow journalists to be imprisoned for defamation, revealing "state secrets" or publishing reports that jeopardise "national security." A journalist was sentenced to a year and a half in prison in 2003 for a report about military manoeuvres.
On 28 May, the government approved a proposal to amend three laws governing the broadcast media (the 1976 Terrestrial Radio and Television Law, the 1993 Cable Radio and Television Law and the 1999 Satellite Radio and Television Law). The bill aims to free the media from any political influence by banning elected office holders, party members, senior officials and foreigners from "creating, owning or holding key positions in broadcasting companies." Anybody in these categories with shares in broadcasting companies would have to sell them within six months. Furthermore, broadcasting licences would have to be renewed every six to nine years.
The bill was far from having unanimous support in parliament, including within the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Some newspapers asked if ruling party parliamentarian Trong Cahi would stand down from the board of the privately-owned Formosa TV. The opposition had rejected the proposed amendment in December 2000, forcing the government to await the new legislature. A spokesman said it would be a priority in this legislature. The state, the ruling DPP, the main opposition party and the army are all major shareholders in the news media.
On 4 September, the government approved a draft Communications and Broadcasting Basic Law which would set up a National Communications Commission to regulate the sector and "create an environment of fair competition for national operators." The bill passed its first reading in parliament in October.
Harassment and obstruction
The government banned live broadcasts by the People’s Republic of China’s national television channel CCTV on 4 March 2003. Two days later, the government also banned the broadcasts of another mainland China channel, CCTV-4, which had already been cut back from 24 hours to eight hours a day in 2002. The bans were a reprisal for Beijing’s refusal to license four Taiwanese television stations, Eastern TV, Era Communications, Set TV and USTV, which wanted to reach the half million Taiwanese who live on the mainland and have no access to the island’s TV stations. Only luxury hotels in China receive Taiwanese TV programmes. A Chinese official on 27 March warned the Taiwanese government that the ban on CCTV could have harmful consequences and "cast a shadow over exchanges" between China and Taiwan.
On 4 April, Star TV cancelled the contract of the political programme "Sisy’s News," presented by independent parliamentarian Sisy Chen, who said the decision was "politically motivated" and accused the ruling DPP being involved in an attempt to silence opposition voices. The opposition nationalist Kuomintang said the withdrawal of Chen’s programme was an "attack on democracy." Star TV rejected the charges of censorship on 7 April and said the decision was taken with the aim of diversifying its programming. Presidential adviser James Huang told the press that the president had not been involved. Chen counter-attacked, accusing the government of buying advertising from Star TV in exchange for a pledge to broadcast a documentary about Chen Shui-bian’s first thousand days in the presidency. This "secret agreement" also included an undertaking to withdraw "Sisy’s News," she claimed. Chen resumed her programme on the Kuomintang-controlled China Television in May.
The dailies Chinese Times and United News reported on 15 April that the government had asked a private foundation to monitor media news reports. The government information office had also reportedly asked the media to provide precise information about their activities. The authorities said they were just carrying out a survey of the news media and denied that they wanted to exercise any control.
A photographer and reporter with the magazine Next (owned by Hong Kong press magnate Jimmy Lai) were quarantined in a military camp in the north of Taiwan for two weeks on 4 May after doing an undercover report in a Taipei municipal hospital where Sars patients were being treated. The two journalists were caught posing as patients in order to stay in the hospital, which was banned to the public. Their material was confiscated. After being released from quarantine, they were liable for prosecution under an anti-Sars law passed the previous week and they faced three-year prison sentences for endangering public health. Next editor Pei Wei accused the authorities of "overreacting." Their trial had still not taken place at the end of the year.
The Taiwan high court sentenced Hung Che-cheng, a reporter with the Chinese-language Taiwan Daily News, to a year and a half in prison for "sedition" on 25 July. The sentence was suspended for three years. The defence minister had announced in October 2002 that Hung was to be prosecuted for "revealing military secrets" in a July 2000 article about army manoeuvres in the now-closed newspaper Power News. The officer who passed on the information was jailed for two years and two months.
Hung, who had an exclusive report about the presence of a Chinese spy boat near the Taiwanese coast in May 2000, called the suspended sentence an attempt to intimidate the investigative press and announced that he would appeal to the supreme court. The president of the Taiwanese Association of Journalists said the verdict was "ridiculous" and showed that the "concept of national security is too vague and changes according to the political situation."