Tsai Ing-wen Ought to Have Greater Respect for Press Freedom
United Daily News editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
December 7, 2009
On December 3rd, the United Daily News published an editorial urging the DPP not to use ECFA to divide Taiwan. DPP Chairman Tsai Ing-wen read this editorial and wrote us a letter. She vehemently objected to our references to "divisiveness" and "anti-intellectual demagoguery."
This newspaper published Chairman Tsai's letter and our brief response in the December 4th Op-Ed Section. This exchange between a politician and the media is deeply regrettable. Nevertheless, we must set the record straight.
The editorial this newspaper published on the 3rd asked whether the Democratic Progressive Party and Tsai Ing-wen had oversimplified a complex issue like ECFA and reduced it to "toadying up to [Mainland] China and selling out Taiwan." We asked whether such practices were anti-intellectual demagoguery. We also asked whether the DPP and Tsai Ing-wen had maligned ECFA, a policy intended to protect Taiwan's future, and used it to divide the nation and society. Our editorial argued that agricultural issues must be addressed, but they must not be used as pretexts to divide the nation into "agricultural counties and cities" and "non-agricultural counties and cities," and incite farmers to hate society. We considered our comments fair and reasonable.
Chairman Tsai's letter denied the charges of "divisiveness" and "anti-intellectual demagoguery." On the issue of divisiveness, she ignored the expression "toadying up to [Mainland] China and selling out Taiwan." Our editorial pointed out that over the past two decades the Democratic Progressive Party has persistently divided the nation and society, through its "rectification of names and authoring of a new constitution" campaign, and its rejection of the Republic of China. It has divided citizens along the lines of "Taiwanese" vs. "Mainlanders," and "love for Taiwan" vs. "selling out Taiwan," and "Northerners" vs. "Southerners." It has constantly sought ways to divide people. Chairman Tsai evaded this issue entirely. Instead, she wrote "According to the logic of the editorial, raising objections to the government's policies divides society into two opposing camps, the pros and the cons. Therefore this too is a form of divisiveness." She asked provocatively whether "refusing to going along with the Ma government amounted to dividing Taiwan?" Chairman Tsai not only refused to address the issue of divisiveness. She attempted to change the subject. She accused the editorial of "attaching false labels" to the Democratic Progressive Party. She said the editorial "viewed opposition to the government's policies as some sort of scourge." She said it "prettified the government" and "acted as a mouthpiece for administration officials." Chairman Tsai wrote, using the most ascerbic language possible, "After reading your editorial, I was not angry. I was speechless."
This is hardly the attitude the chairman of a political party ought to adopt when discussing controversial matters. She evaded the real issues. She began by accusing the editorial of "viewing opposition to the government as some sort of scourge." She implied that the editorial "parroted the Ma administration." What sort of argumentation is this, that can't be bothered to distinguish between black and white, and truth and lies? Chairman Tsai said the editorial unfairly attached false labels on her. But on whom was she unfairly attaching false labels?
Leave other issues aside for the moment. Ever since Ma Ying-jeou became president, and Tsai Ing-wen became DPP party chairman, this newspaper's editorials and "In Black and White" column have been more critical of President Ma than of Chairman Tsai. Even in the three in one local elections, our editorials and our "In Black and White" column have been far harsher in their criticisms of the KMT and President Ma than they have of the DPP and Chairman Tsai, both in frequency and in intensity. Under the circumstances, was our editorial not a "dissenting opinion?" How can it be considered "parroting the Ma administration?" How can it be considered a case of "acting as the mouthpiece of administration officials?"
Let's return to the issue of "anti-intellectual demogoguery." Chairman Tsai's letter depicted farmers' anxieties over ECFA in deeply moving terms. We feel the same way. But she made no effort whatsoever to explain why so many DPP politicians have demagogued the issue as "toadying up to [Mainland] China and selling out Taiwan." She denied spreading rumors at the grassroots level. Chairman Tsai may claim that she herself has never used the expression "toadying up to [Mainland] China and selling out Taiwan." But has she forgotten that she is the chairman of the DPP. She bears responsibility for statements issued by her party's officials.
This perhaps, is Chairman Tsai's dilemma. She is unwilling to be the DPP's mask, or "persona." She wants to be a bona fide leader. But she sometimes thinks of herself as the DPP's mask. She thinks that rhetoric such as "toadying up to [Mainland] China and selling out Taiwan" has nothing to do with her. The DPP's rhetoric has long been divorced from its core values. For example, its core value is Taiwan independence. Its championing of "democracy" is merely a pretext. And so it is with ECFA. First DPP leaders initiate a whisper campaign about "toadying up to [Mainland] China and selling out Taiwan." Then they play up "the tragic plight of farmers." Chairman Tsai scrupulously avoided using the term "toadying up to [Mainland] China and selling out Taiwan" in her letter. But she did resort to demagoguing "the tragic plight of farmers." Is this how a responsible party chairman ought to behave? Does this constitute honest soul-searching by a party chairman?
This exchange between us and Chairman Tsai is merely one incident. What concerns us more is how to normalize politician/media interaction. Without the freedom to denounce the Lee Teng-hui regime ten years ago, the DPP could never have ruled the central government for eight years. Over the past two or three years, without a free press to uphold justice, the DPP would never have been able to extricate itself from corruption. The DPP's rise and fall is closely related to the rise and fall of media freedom. Even today, the media still holds out hope for the DPP. In fact, the reason our editorial urged the DPP not to use ECFA to divide Taiwan, was precisely because we still expect so much from the DPP. If Chairman Tsai truly understood this, she would not have responded the way she did. The Democratic Progressive Party won the recent local elections. Chairman Tsai and the Democratic Progressive Party have scaled new heights in the defense of democratic values in a free and open forum.
Freedom of the press is an important social value. Freedom of expression must be respected and protected. In the past Chairman Tsai has squabbled with other newspapers because she was unhappy with their editorial commentary. A party chairman should learn from public comments regarding her party's political moves. One may engage in rational debate. But one must never attempt to discredit the media through defamation, by unfairly labeling its editorial commentary as "prettifying the government" or as "acting as the mouthpiece of administration officials." A party chairman in a democracy should never adopt such an attitude with the free press.
Besides, from a realpolitik perspective, political parties, especially during elections, routinely float lies, spread rumors, spout heresy, and engage in sophistry and defamation. Political parties are a million times worse than the media when it comes to polluting the air with distortions. A chairman of a political party has failed to assume responsibility for her own party's public statements. She has failed to account to society for her party's breaches of ethics and abdications of responsibility. What right does she have to defame and distort the media's well-aimed comments regarding her party's political moves? On the one hand, she is abusing her right to free speech. On the other hand, she is suppressing others' right to free speech. Is this really something the chairman of an ostensibly "democratic and progressive" political party should be doing?
Chairman Tsai Ing-wen was once considered a cut above the average politician. We have always held high expectations for her. But if Chairman Tsai has has sunk to this level, the public may well give up on the Democratic Progressive Party. They may cease hoping that it will rehabilitate itself. This is a matter of far greater concern than the exchange between us and Chairman Tsai. Sound advice often grates on the ear. Surely Chairman Tsai is not going to characterize that as "parroting the Ma administration," is she?
2009.12.07 03:18 am