Rule change a threat to freedom of journalists

After local governments across the nation spent big money on fireworks displays for New Year’s Eve celebrations to generate a “little happiness” for the public, Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) surprised media outlets with a big New Year’s Day present on Jan. 1.

The Taipei City Police Department issued regulations for how officers should deal with the media and assemblies and parades. In the future, police are to designate a “press zone” and a “petition zone,” which in effect is a “protest zone,” for all demonstrations, which are to be divided into two stages: a “peaceful stage” and a “dispersal stage.”

If a clash occurs during a demonstration, the new rules require journalists to gather in a specific area to distinguish them from protesters if police have to disperse the crowd.

Setting aside the problem that it might be completely impossible to implement such a design — because it would be extremely difficult for reporters to capture first-hand images from the so-called “safe” press zones — the design would also restrict press freedom by using the excuse that reporters are being protected.

A Taipei police department press release said that in future assemblies and parades, police representatives wearing pink vests would be responsible for communication and negotiation with reporters at the scene. The question is who would be able to represent the large number of reporters, many of whom come from rival media outlets.

Next, according to Constitutional Interpretation No. 689, the definition of reporters is not restricted to representatives of large media organizations. Today, more people provide first-hand coverage with their own cameras, video cameras and notebooks, and those people are called “citizen journalists.” They have played an increasingly important role in reporting, because only citizen reporters would cover non-mainstream social events of various sizes regardless of their commercial interests.

The Council of Grand Justices said that citizen reporters should not be deprived of their right to gather news, and the Constitution promises freedom of the press. However, the Taipei City Government has only discussed the drawing up of press zones with mainstream journalists and completely shut the door on citizen reporters and those from small independent media outlets.

Moreover, what standards are to be used for dividing an assembly or a parade into a “peaceful stage” and a “dispersal stage?” Under what circumstances would the city government begin to disperse a crowd? Ko has never clarified the so-called “red line” proposed during his campaign.

How would he avoid the kind of violent dispersal by police and the abuses of power that occurred during protests last year at the Executive Yuan on March 24 or the protest on Zhongxiao W Road on April 28? To this day, not one government agency has stood up to take responsibility for the violence.

At the scene of an assembly or a parade, protesters and reporters should be seen as human rights defenders, and they must therefore be protected by the UN Declaration on Human Rights. Unfortunately, the Taipei City Government draws a line between reporters from large media enterprises and other people, believing that police only need to protect the human rights of the former, but not the rest.

This difference in treatment is discrimination. What the city government’s new policy protects is not reporters’ rights to gather news or press freedom. Instead, it merely protects the large media enterprises behind those reporters.

By Chiu E-ling 邱伊翎   / Translated by Eddy Chang
(Chiu E-ling is the secretary-general of the Taiwan Association for Human Rights.)