‘Press Areas’ Threaten to Undermine Work of JournalistsNew administrative measures unveiled by police on Jan. 1 could make it very difficult for the press to document police misdemeanor during protests
(Updated 2015.01.01, 21:22)
President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) may have waxed about the need for reconciliation and cooperation during his New Year address, but judging from an announcement the day before, it seems that one of his administration’s resolutions for 2015 is to make it more difficult for journalists in Taiwan to do their work.
As Taiwanese were preparing to usher in the new year, police on Dec. 31 announced that under new regulations which had been in the making for some time, journalists covering protests will now be required to stay within designated “press areas” (採訪區). According to an exercise held by the Zhongzheng First Precinct on Ketagalan Blvd in Taipei this morning, which veteran journalist Sun Chiong-li (孫窮理) attended and whose account is used for this article, the press areas will be delineated using red police tape. “Media liaison” officers wearing pink vests will serve as contact points for journalists seeking to conduct interviews.
To remind entrepreneurial journalists of the regulations, when the situation heats up a police officer will brandish a large placard (again pink) with the bilingual message “Reporters should stay in the press area” inscribed in yellow. Even if they show official press passes, journalists and photographers who fail to respect the restrictions will be treated like the protesters and dealt with accordingly — meaning that they, too, could be taken away if, after determining that a protest is “illegal” or has gotten “violent,” the C.O. decides to take dispersing action. Already in the past two years, police have often created a cordon sanitaire to prevent journalists and photographers from clearly observing a scene whenever protesters are taken away, something that this author has experienced on several occasions.
According to police, the new administrative measures were implemented to “ensure the physical safety of journalists” and were arrived at following “consultations” with both local and foreign reporters, including the Association of Taiwan Journalists (ATJ). While we’re all for protecting members of the press, the idea that any journalist would agree to having his or her freedom of movement curtailed in such fashion stretches credulity (ATJ responds). If similar consultations by the administration in recent years are any indication, the validity of this “consulting” with journalists should furthermore be treated as suspect. The immediate reaction of the press corps also suggests deep disagreement with the new measures.
And for a reason: Journalists must retain their freedom of movement to do their work. By boxing them in an area determined by the police, the authorities could prevent the media from documenting incidents such as those that occurred at the Executive Yuan during the night of March 23-24, when journalists were expelled before riot police entered the area and used excessive force against unarmed activists, injuring several dozens. (To this we must add measures, first reported last year, intended to deter ordinary citizens from filming police action and posting the footage on the Internet, as this could now constitute “incitement.”)
Moreover, the involvement of press officers — also from the police — can serve as a means to “vet” those who are allowed to talk to the media, deter individuals from speaking to the press, or intimidate those who choose to do so.
Sensing the backlash, police at the exercise this morning told reporters that they would try to be “flexible” and “accommodating” if journalists refuse to operate inside the designated press area. But flexibility isn’t good enough for the fourth estate; in democracies — and Taiwan is a democracy — full access is sine qua non. Moreover, we don’t want the ability of journalists to do their work to be contingent on the whims or mood of the C.O. at the site.
Yes, the profession comports certain risks, but journalists have learned to manage those, and they weigh the risks to their personal safety against the benefits to society that result from the documenting of events. Furthermore, Taiwan isn’t Iraq or Afghanistan; extra measures to ensure the physical safety of journalists are hardly necessary. Even at their rowdiest, protests in Taiwan are very safe. Given this, we can only conclude that the new regulations are instead meant to suppress the dissemination of information that does not reflect well upon the authorities.
J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei.