News / Asia

Taiwan Government Information Office Closes its Doors

Ralph Jennings
TAIPEI - Taiwan lifted martial law more than 20 years ago to form a democracy. But one of the signs of its authoritarian past will fade into history only this week. The Government Information Office will close after 40 years of media censorship followed by 25 years of media service.
 
The Government Information Office, which was founded in China before the Nationalist Party fled to Taiwan, will formally disband on Sunday as President Ma Ying-jeou begins his second term in office. Officials say they are axing the department to streamline government and match overseas peers that do not have such an agency.
 
Political analysts in Taiwan say the department’s key functions of the past have long become obsolete. Those included censoring domestic news, telling reporters what to write and picking pro-social films for Taiwanese audiences. The same agency made a splash in the 1970s by appealing to the world for support as the fast rise of China had isolated Taiwan diplomatically.
 
Daniel Huang, a former legislator and one-time official under the Government Information Office, says democracy has reduced the department’s relevance.

He says that since Taiwan has allowed democratic elections, local journalists can go straight to the president, bypassing any need to ask the Government Information Office for explanations of domestic policy. Since martial law was lifted and democracy began, Huang says, there has been less and less of a role for the office in domestic media.

The Nationalists had ruled Taiwan with an authoritarian grip since setting up their government in Taipei in 1949 with the intent of retaking mainland China after losing it to Mao Zedong’s Communists.

During the first years of Nationalist control in Taiwan, the Government Information Office rigorously banned newspapers or periodicals that questioned Nationalist rule. Its effort was part of a broader, and often deadly, crackdown known as the White Terror.  In the early 1980s the same office stopped publications that were launched by a movement that became the island’s chief opposition party after democracy took root.

In 1987, after more than a decade of fast economic development, Taiwan finally lifted martial law to ease pressure from citizens as well as its staunch informal ally the United States. Over the following years many institutions once charged with enforcing authoritarian rule were disbanded or reorganized to accommodate democracy.

Out-going Government Information Office minister Philip Yang says his agency switched then to being a servant of the suddenly free media and using in-house publications to promote Taiwan overseas.

President Ma Ying-jeou told a Government Information Office farewell ceremony that the department’s fate was in question from the day martial law was lifted.

Ma says the world had already felt that Taiwan was changing, but as martial law was lifted, many people did not know how they would handle the new style of leadership, and the Government Information Office faced an especially big challenge in understanding its role in the future.

Starting Sunday, the information office’s roughly 700 employees and their duties will be folded into other government departments, mainly the foreign ministry and the Council of Cultural Affairs.

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