TAIPEI - A Taiwan television network quoted a farmer last month saying the price of pomelos was so low last year that he threw 1.2 million kilograms of the grapefruit-like produce into a reservoir. Taiwan’s National Communications Commission says the farmer actually sold his fruit.
Last year the government protested news reports saying Taiwan’s office in Osaka had not arranged to rescue Taiwanese tourists stranded at a typhoon-flooded Japanese airport. Japanese authorities had closed off the airport, the government here said, to just about all unnecessary traffic.
Cases such as these prompted the government to approve a series of draft legal changes aimed at stopping the spread of misinformation.
The laws, more often found in authoritarian Asian states rather than the region’s democracies, are expected to discipline Taiwan’s freewheeling news outlets along with social media. The revised laws could instill more trust in a society already divided over major issues such ties with political rival China, some media scholars say.
“Everyone can now be a reporter, everyone can always send out news, and everyone’s view is different,” said George Hou, mass communications lecturer at I-Shou University in Taiwan. “So it’s become where you can say news is a mess and society is saying they distrust everything.”
But some media people warn that freedom of expression will suffer if prosecutors use the term “fake news” to target accurate reports told from viewpoints that go against government interests.
The Taiwan cabinet on Thursday approved changes to two criminal code articles covering false reports about “trade safety” and people’s “reputation and trust,” said Lee Hao-sung, a deputy in the Ministry of Justice’s prosecutor’s office.
Enforcement of existing libel and defamation laws depends too much on legal action by alleged victims, whose cases can last more than a year, media scholars say. Stronger laws will let prosecutors step in and close cases faster, the analysts expect.
Revisions to clauses on fair trade include increased penalties for the spread of misinformation by mobile or internet media, Lee told a news conference Thursday. “If they use the methods of electronic messages or the internet, because the transmission speeds are very fast and the distribution range very wide, we've added a clause covering that,” he said.
Other legal changes, part of a government review process that began last year, would revise “the elements that constitute the crime of fake news dissemination” and related penalties, the cabinet said in a statement.
In March 2018, media reports fueled fears that toilet paper prices were about to rise. The panic touched off a buying spree that emptied shelves in most Taipei supermarkets. The Fair Trade Commission ultimately fined a local hypermarket chain for spreading “misleading” information that it had planned a toilet paper price hike, the Taipei Times online said.
Elsewhere in Asia, Cambodia, China, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam have all moved over the past two years to strengthen laws against the spread of misinformation. Malaysia and the Philippines have abandoned their efforts.
Threat to free expression?
Taiwan’s mass media reporters sometimes do not check facts or sources, Hou said, though they know they should. A longer-term, widespread mistrust of local media could erode Taiwan’s democracy and help China take over, he said. China claims sovereignty over Taiwan, though the two sides have been self-ruled since the 1940s.
“I think Taiwan’s situation, both domestic and offshore, it’s not the same as other countries, so if we don’t have a clear way to contain uncontrolled sourcing, Taiwan’s democratic system will be destroyed,” Hou said.
But the 100-member Taiwan Journalists Association wants further review of the proposed legal changes, association secretary general Yang Tian-you said Monday.
Existing defamation and libel laws should be enough to cover bogus reporting, he said, while the draft revisions give government authorities too much power in deciding what’s fake. Disputes, he fears, might come down to differing "viewpoints" rather than comparison of facts. Without more clarity, he said, “news freedom” is threatened.
Deciding what reports constitute “fake news” may fall into the hands of government officials worried about the next election, said Ku Lin-lin, associate journalism professor at National Taiwan University. Quick prosecution would give the government an upper hand in controlling the media, she added.
“Really I think the administration wants to create more like you can say tools or weapons to attack or counterattack fake news,” Ku said. “They need something to penalize the media, they need something more concrete.”
But on the definition of fake news, she said, “these laws give a very clear message to the people the government has the final say.”
Taiwan's ruling party-dominated parliament must approve the legal revisions before they take effect.