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New Taiwan Law Restricting Suicide Coverage in Media Stirs Debate

FILE - A funeral home employee prepares a coffin at a mortuary in Taipei, Taiwan, Jan. 16, 2010. A new law that bars news media from disclosing various types of information about suicides is stirring debate in Taiwan.

A new Taiwan law bars news media from disclosing various types of information about suicides, including methods used, in an effort to stem copycat behavior.

Limits on media coverage are aimed at reducing the number of people who try to commit suicide. About 7,000 teenagers attempted to do so in 2018, the Ministry of Health and Welfare said, 19% above the world average. Suicide deaths that year came to 3,865.

Under the new Suicide Prevention Act, daily newspapers, websites and television networks can be fined up to about $33,000 for showing photos, illustrations or videos or on suicides. The same potential penalty applies to disclosing suicide methods or explaining how to buy tools for suicide, or giving reasons for isolated cases.

The act cleared its public consultation period Tuesday, allowing the government to make changes as it wishes or implement the law in its current form.

Suicides normally go up in Taiwan for three months after a bout of reports that mention methods, locations or celebrities who killed themselves, said Wu Chia-yi, associate professor in the National Taiwan University College of Medicine’s nursing faculty.

“According to our clinical experience and some of our interaction with patients, we've discovered that the more detailed info the more influential it is, for example, suicide method, places and also details, for instance a charcoal burning suicide will say these people sealed up their doors and windows and how they burned the charcoal," Wu said.

Taiwan’s four major daily newspapers and many websites cover celebrity and other unusual suicides, sometimes in graphic detail.

Cédric Alviani, head of the East Asia bureau of advocacy group Reporters Without Borders, said the law will curb the media's ability to obtain journalistically sound information.

"We perfectly understand that it is their duty to try and bring improvements to the society and address that terrible society problem that is suicide and especially suicide of teenagers,” Alviani said. “However, the solution they propose, which is forbidding the media from mentioning the topic, is not a solution,” he said.

Only New Zealand has a similar law, Alviani said. In that country, the media cannot report a suicide's method without the chief coroner's permission. Elsewhere, media outlets follow World Health Organization guidelines that suggest avoiding "explicit description" of methods, details about locations and "undue repetitions" of suicide stories.

Restrictions on suicide reporting could open the door for other types of media freedom curbs, said Joanna Lei, a University of Pennsylvania communications Ph.D. and CEO of Chunghua 21st Century Think Tank in Taiwan.

"I see this as a social responsibility of the media,” Lei said. “It is in the territory of self-sanction or self-regulation and it should not be legislated.”

Reporters Without Borders said Taiwan's government should better organize the media sector and talk to news outlets about “ethics,” Alviani said.

Taiwan’s major media normally take down posts now if asked by experts, Wu said.

Most news outlets in Taiwan are “self-disciplined” but still put major cases on their front pages, said Fang Chun-kai, director of the Suicide Prevention Center at Mackay Memorial Hospital in Taipei. He suggests reporting suicides away from the top headlines with other “society news.”