In 1787, Thomas Jefferson, a founder and third president of the United States of America, said that if he had to choose between "a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter." Most democrats around the world today would not go as far as this, but the point remains a powerful one. There is no doubt that independent media are among the core institutions of any representative democracy.
How can Taiwan, Canada or any country maintain a democratic government--by which most around the world mean what Abraham Lincoln said was government of the people, by the people and for the people-- if our media of whatever kind and location do not represent the full range of opinion across our respective countries? Freedom of speech and vigourous independent media are essential to obtaining accountability, transparency and good governance anywhere.
The Case of China
The economy of China has been growing rapidly for about 25 years and fortunately many Chinese have improved their standard of living. Many observers hoped this phenomenon and China's rising world influence would bring improved human dignity policies, including freedom of the media.
There is an interesting chapter on current media censorship in China by Phelim Kine, a former journalist with more than a decade of reporting from China and Asia, in China's Great Leap, published this year after the Beijing Olympics by Human Rights Watch. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in 2007 for the ninth consecutive year named China as the world's leading jailer of journalists, with twenty-nine imprisoned. The party-state also won a gold medal for the longest sentences, with Chinese journalists Chen Renjie and Lin Youping, locked up since 1983 for publishing Ziyou Bao (Freedom Report).
Thousands of newspapers and Web sites across China—except for the main party-state outlets such as the People's Daily, People's Radio and China Central Television—are nowadays relatively free to report on sports, entertainment, life styles and local news. They must, however, offer no politically sensitive material, notably, says Kine, anything "unflattering about the government, the Chinese Communist party and events of the day, which might prompt doubt about the stability of the country and the wisdom and benevolence of its leaders."
Kine illustrates how far the Party paranoia in Beijing still goes by what happened in August, 2007, when sixty-four persons died after a bridge collapsed in central China. "A group of unidentified thugs interrupted five Chinese journalists interviewing relatives of the victims…The journalists, including even a reporter from the government's People's Daily, were kicked and punched. When police finally arrived on the scene, they didn't arrest the assailants-they arrested the journalists."
Another instance of what the lack of an independent media has done to the Chinese people comes from James Kynge`s award-winning book, China Shakes The World. Briefly put, it is the HIV scandal in Henan province, unfolding since the mid-1990s. Blood donors were paid for their plasma and the remaining blood was returned to them from banks of the same blood type. Tragically, the pool was infected with HIV and an estimated 100,000 children, among many other victims, were orphaned. Kynge goes on: "Local governments, who profited from the blood collection centres in the first place, have tried to cover up the scandal, arresting AIDS activists, closing down orphanages and conducting a strenuous campaign to keep the issue out of the national media...Pierre Haski, China correspondent of Liberation, the French newspaper, has obtained official documents showing that branches of the Henan government knew that HIV was being spread through the contaminated blood long before they did anything to stop the blood trade."
The temporary media regulations in effect for foreign journalists before and during the Beijing Olympics were ignored to the extent that Kine notes the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China during 2007 finding, "more than 180 incidents of intimidation of sources,detentions, surveillance, official reprimands and even violence against staff and sources." Chinese nationals themselves face even greater risks if they report on sensitive topics such as Tibet, the Uighurs, Taiwan, Falun Gong, Tiananmen Square or dissidents. For example, Zhao Yan, the news researcher for the New York Times, served three years in prison until 2007 after he was accused of fraud and leaking state secrets. The court refused to allow his lawyer to call witnesses on his behalf at his trial.
In June 1989, as the world watched independent media in horror, the Chinese army at Tiananmen crushed a student-lead movement for a more democratic and accountable government, killing possibly thousands and jailing many others. Today, under a tightly censored media, this important part of recent history is ignored in the history books and other sources, leading to a generation of youth in China having limited knowledge of either the democratic movement or the price paid by their predecessors in blood. I'm told that blogs and 'massively multiplayer online role-playing games' (MMORPG) with difficulty do allow discussion of the events of June, 1989 and other topics. The yearning for an independent media continues and the spirit of the Chinese people has not been broken.
In 2003, the government of China tightly concealed information about the deadly SARS virus from both the Chinese people and world, thereby allowing the spread of an epidemic that claimed the lives of about 700 persons in many countries, including Taiwan and Canada, and causing enormous economic disruption. I wonder how many of your 23 million fellow Taiwanese think Beijing showed any concern for this country during the SARS epidemic?
The Beijing party-state continued its practice of controlling the media and denying public access to information even when the lives of children were threatened. The CCP knew full well that milk tainted with melamine was being sold to millions of Chinese before the Olympic Games. Consumers throughout China were kept in the dark even weeks after the games were completed. As a result, children died as a result of consuming tainted milk, while many dairy farmers, whose reputations were irrevocably damaged, face bankruptcy. Media outside China released this scandal, as was the case for the SARS epidemic.
The 'media as propaganda' phenomenon in China is well illustrated by the experience of Falun Gong practitioners. In 1999, not long before then President Jiang Zemin declared war on that community, a government department in Beijing estimated that there were between 70 and 100 million Falun Gong practitioners across China. Following nine years of virtually non-stop demonization of Falun Gong in the Party media, many citizens of China today appear to believe that Falun Gong represents a major threat to their country.
For example, one foreign visitor to Beijing about two years ago told me that she and her mother were told then by their guide in Tiananmen Square that Falun Gong practitioners "eat their children". Unfortunately, there are no dissenting media voices in China to offset the Party propaganda on this or any other issue. Truth is spread by word-of-mouth. The Internet there operates mostly as an Intranet since the party-state spends huge sums to limit traffic to within China only by Party personnel. Despite all, connectivity has improved dramatically in China and young people especially have found ingenious ways to spread truthful news despite the best efforts of the party-state.
Enhancing Media Freedom
Unfortunately, the media are also under attack today in other parts of the world by governments who wants the media to serve only the interests of their own political parties. Only about a fifth of the world's 6.6 billion people currently live in nations with media considered "free". Among the interdependent parts needed to strengthen independent media are professional journalists, supportive legal environments, financially-sustainable media and readers and officials who understand the needs of independent media. There are of course problems with independent media wherever it exists, including bias in news reporting, lack of accountability by editors and large media outlets, and misleading readers by implication, omissions and other practices of shoddy journalism. The alternative, propaganda media, is much worse from every standpoint.
Independent media can influence local and national issues such as public education and health, the economy, accountability by elected persons, cabinets and officials, and empowering women and minorities. New media, such as cell phones (which in one well-known case got out to the world photos of Buddhist priests protesting in Burma in Sept. 2007) as news devices, and citizen journalism, such as bloggers. Internet journalists can accomplish much to inform their communities about news issues.
On November 19th, a media release from the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), representing 600,000 journalists in 120 countries, urged Taiwan's National Police Agency (NPA) to stop asking media personnel for information about protesters at a recent public demonstration. An IFJ affiliate said that the Taiwan police had reportedly asked media workers to provide photographs of demonstrators who participated in the "Yellow Ribbon Siege" protest against a meeting between President Ma and the chairman of the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS) Chen Yunlin on November 16.
"The duty of a journalist is to report the truth and to protect his or her sources. Journalists must not be compelled to act as agents to collect information on behalf of government authorities. Police interference of this kind places freedom of the independent press in jeopardy," IFJ Asia-Pacific said. "The IFJ urges Taiwan's authorities to respect press freedom and ensure that they do not compromise journalists' integrity. All media outlets are also urged to defend press freedom and refrain from handing over photographs."
According to the release, increasing police pressure on Taiwan's media has been reported since early November. An independent documentary film-maker was detained by police while she was filming Chen in a hotel on November 4. In a separate incident, a television reporter was assaulted by police who reportedly mistook him for a protester during the November 16 rally.
Finally, democracy is more than elections; it includes civil society and checks on governments in every national capital. The people of Taiwan should keep a watchful eye on the Ma and any other government you elect to ensure that your hard-won democracy and dignity of all Taiwanese are strengthened, rather than focusing on appeasing the party-state in Beijing. It is vital to keep Taiwan in the resolutely democratic and rule-of-law column.