Worrying Trends in Taiwan’s Law Enforcement PracticesThe incidents that occurred during a protest on Nov. 27 are part of a gradual deterioration observed in the past 48 months, made worse in the wake of the Sunflower occupation
I’ve heard it all before, and it goes something like this: Yes, Taiwanese law enforcement sometimes uses excessive force, and yes, journalists are sometimes prevented from doing their work, but overall, the situation in Taiwan is a lot better than in many other countries. All undoubtedly true, especially in light of the recent developments in the U.S. and the continued assault on press freedoms worldwide, from Poland to next-door China. But should we settle for “less bad”? Should not infractions, when they do occur in Taiwan, result in outcry, and calls for improvement?
The latest incident occurred on Nov. 27 outside the Ministry of Transportation and Communications (MOTC) in Taipei, where a group of supporters of laid-off tollbooth workers were protesting. The “e-Tag” issue has been with us since January, when the electronic system resulted in the layoff of hundreds of workers who had manned the poll collection stations for several years.
Many of the about 900 workers affected have refused the five-month severance package that was offered to them. Several others have turned down the jobs which Far Eastern Group (遠東集團), the parent company of Far Eastern Electronic Toll Collection Co, operator of the automated e-Tag system, had promised to help them find. As many of the jobs (about 150 job offers have been made to date) consisted of positions as engineers and electricians, the middle-aged victims, many of them with minimum education, simply did not qualify and have therefore been without employment since January.
A self-help association was created to pressure the government to extend compensations under the Labor Standards Act, whose provisions are more generous (see Article 17, among others). In the past months, the association and sympathizing activists have held a series of protests outside the MOTC and other government agencies, blocked major roads, and launched a hunger strike.
As with the other more “radical” protest groups that have taken action in recent years (e.g., Black Island Nation Youth Alliance, Dapu Self-Help Organization), the association has refused to go away, and as a result the authorities have become increasingly hostile to them. Whether we agree or not with the cause is one thing; what is clear, however, as that we should always expect police to behave professionally, which it often hasn’t. During a protest on the sidelines of a Sean Lien (連勝文) campaign rally last weekend, where President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) was stumping for the KMT candidate, police did nothing to prevent Lien “supporters,” some of them with known ties to pro-unification groups and possibly gangsters, from physically assaulting the activists, nor did they take action when the victims asked the police detain the suspects.
Police inaction is one thing; another is when law enforcement officers themselves turn on unarmed activists and use excessive force. See, for example, this video from a Nov. 27 protest outside the MOTC, which resulted in six activists being sent to hospital for treatment. The young man on the ground who is struggling for breath (starting at 0:18) is Kuo Guan-jun (郭冠均), a student who has been active in several protest organizations in recent years. According to witnesses, moments before a police officer punched him in the chest, whereupon the young man collapsed. Later on (2:17), a police officer punches Badcore Pan, another student activist who is surrounded by officers and whose hands are handcuffed with plastic tie wrap, in the face.
No sooner has the punch landed (2:48) than two police officers and another man in civilian clothes (presumably with MOTC) surround Edd Jhong, an award-winning photojournalist, from taking photos of the assault on Pan. When Jhong protests, one police officer covers his mouth with his hand. At no point did police ask to see his press credentials (not that it matters, as the National Police Administration now seems to regard citizen journalism as “incitement”). Jhong informs me that one police officer scornfully told him, “Sue me if you want.” The photographer is then pushed to the side and is eventually forced beyond the police barrier. Even there, however, two cops continue to harass him and undermine his efforts to snap pictures (from 3:10 on), even as Wang Yu-chi (王禹奇), a victim of the state-sanctioned demolition of the Huaguang Community in Taipei last year, calmly tries to shoo them away.
As some may recall, Jhong, who recently published a wonderful book on environmental issues in Changhua County, received similar treatment last year when taking photos of a flash protest on the grounds of the Executive Yuan. In that incident, flashing his press credentials (he was then with PTS) made no difference, and he was tackled and dragged away. Several other incidents were reported throughout 2013 and this year in which members of the press were denied access, dragged away, or had their cameras pulled from their hands. Among others, incidents occurred during the protests to save the Huaguang Community last year, during riot police action at the Executive Yuan on the night of March 23/24, and during the large anti-nuclear protest on Zhongxiao West Road days after the end of the Sunflower occupation of the legislature, prompting complaints from the Association of Taiwan Journalists (ATJ) and news organizations. A recent report by the Committee for Protect Journalists (CPJ) paints a rather bleak picture of the situation.
Compared with other countries in Asia, Taiwan is indeed the envy of many. Police violence is the exception rather than the rule (brutality is extremely rare), and the media environment is, by many yardsticks, the freest in the region. But there are worrying signs. Activism is escalating in response to perceived bad governance, and the authorities have often countered by hardening their stance and loosely interpreting regulations on lawful protests. As the CPJ report, the specter of China looms large, with some journalists fearing that the spate of attacks on journalists in Hong Kong in the past year — most of them attributed to pro-Beijing triad members — could become a reality here as well.
Before the situation deteriorates any further, let us all remind law enforcement authorities to do their work with the professionalism that is expected of them. Taiwan’s freedoms are the pride of its people and an example to societies that face repression. This must be preserved at all cost.
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.