Taiwan’s bid to tackle ‘fake news’ raises fears over freedom of speech

Government is considering changing National Security Act to put internet speech under authorities’ scrutiny

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 October, 2018, 7:02am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 October, 2018, 11:21pm

Taiwan is considering revising its National Security Act, saying it wants to stop “fake news” it claims comes mostly from mainland China and is aimed at disrupting social order on the self-ruled island and smearing its independence-leaning authorities.

But critics and analysts urged the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government to think twice before bringing back the “thought police” who were notoriously active trying to silence dissenting voices in Taiwan from 1949 to 1987 under Kuomintang rule.

The proposal to amend the act would attempt to tackle the spread of fake news reports, especially those from outside Taiwan that could pose a security risk to the island, according to the government.

Lo Shih-hung, founder of the Campaign for Media Reform, said any proposal to amend either the National Security Act or the Criminal Procedures Law to curb false news was worrying because the revised statutes could be used to tighten control of the media and freedom of speech.

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Taiwan spent a long period under the authoritarian rule of the Kuomintang, led by Chiang Kai-shek, after they fled to the island and set up an interim government following the civil war in 1949, when they were defeated by the Communists on the mainland. Martial law was imposed, freedom of speech was restricted and political dissidents were arrested for decades, until the order was eventually lifted in 1987.

Deputy cabinet spokesman Ting Yun-kung said DPP lawmaker Yeh Yi-jin had moved a motion to revise the security act to place internet speech under the scrutiny of the authorities.

“Fake news and disinformation are everywhere on the internet, and much of it is deliberately created by an overseas hostile power [Beijing] that might threaten our national security and must not be overlooked,” Ting said, adding that this was why the government needed to tackle the issue, and the revision would be one of the options to be discussed.

The move comes after Su Chii-cherng, 61, head of the Osaka branch of Taiwan’s de facto embassy in Japan, was found dead in an apparent suicide on September 14.

His office had been criticised for its handling of requests for help from Taiwanese people in the Japanese city when it was hit by Typhoon Jebi the previous week.

Mainland media reported that 32 Taiwanese tourists stranded in Osaka because of the closure of Kansai International Airport were asked to say whether they considered themselves Chinese before being allowed to board buses provided by Beijing’s consular office in the city.

That prompted many Taiwanese to lash out at the government for failing to help its citizens when they were in need, as the mainland Chinese authorities had done.

It was later clarified that no request had been made for any of the Taiwanese passengers to identify themselves as Chinese before they could board the buses.

The authorities, including President Tsai Ing-wen, blamed Su’s death on fake news from the mainland circulating on social media.

Two days after the Taiwanese diplomat was found dead, Beijing accused the island of blackmailing visiting mainland university students into gathering intelligence for Taipei, claiming to have uncovered more than 100 espionage cases involving Taiwan.

The Tsai government immediately fired back, calling it more “imaginative fake news” from Beijing that was aimed at suppressing the island.

Beijing considers Taiwan a wayward province that must be brought back to the Chinese fold, by force if necessary. It suspended official talks and exchanges with the island after Tsai took office in 2016 and refused to accept the “one China” principle.

It has ramped up pressure on the island over the past two years, including poaching five of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, demanding that international airlines refer to it as “Taiwan, China” or “Taiwan province, China”, and increasing military patrols and drills around the island.

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Tsai said that as well as sabotaging Taiwan’s stability and creating conflict and political confrontation on the island, “some of these false reports may affect the end-of-year local government elections”.

The government earlier this year set up a special centre under its cabinet to respond to and clarify information that it deems untrue or erroneous. Since May 10, more than 500 reports have been found to be bogus – or an average of 125 a month, according to the centre. Most of those reports target Tsai and her government, including allegations of indecent behaviour involving senior officials.

While many Taiwanese agree there is a need to tackle the problem of fake news, they are also concerned that the government is clear about defining exactly what constitutes a false report, who would oversee the task, and how the perpetrators would be punished.

“It is very important to define what a false report actually is, because it may be used by the government to block reports that are critical of the government otherwise,” said Hsu Yung-ming, a lawmaker with the pro-independence New Power Party.

Journalism professor Su Herng, at National Chengchi University in Taipei, was also concerned about who would be monitoring the media.

“It should not be for the government to determine whether a report is real or not – otherwise, the government could use this as a tool to put a stop to dissenting voices,” Su said.