Freedom House: Democracy in Asia & Taiwan

On November 14, 2010, the Formosa Foundation co-hosted a press conference featuring Christopher Walker from Freedom House, on the analysis of democratic trends in Asia. Walker is the Director of Studies at Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization that supports the expansion of freedom around the world.
Christopher Walker Freedom House 1

According to the latest Freedom House annual report on Freedom in the World, the overall state of freedom has improved over the last two decades but declines outnumbered gains for the 4th consecutive year, representing the longest continuous period of deterioration in the near 40-year study of Freedom in the World. Asia houses some of the world’s most democratic countries, and some of the “worst of the worst” repressive regimes.

Asian democracies including Taiwan, India, South Korea and Indonesia are seeing pressures and challenges to key institutions and freedoms.  “China’s emergence as a powerful economic player and authoritarian regime raises further questions about Asia’s democratic trajectory,” noted Walker.

Walker noted that Taiwan has generally enjoyed a favorable evaluation from Freedom House. In the 2010 report that covered year 2009, Taiwan’s political rights improved due to enforcement of anti-corruption laws and the prosecution of former high ranking officials, Taiwan’s civil liberties rating which declined due to flaws in the prosecution of criminal defendants’ rights, and limitations of academic freedom, such as the passing of a law restraining scholars at public education facilities from participating in certain political activities. Other areas of concern included irregularities in corruption investigations and other serious judicial reviews, leaks to the media.  Restriction on free expression to limit criticism of the government’s policies is also a growing concern.
Christopher Walker Freedom House 2

Taiwan’s media environment is one of the freest in Asia. However developments in 2009 raised concerns and caused Taiwan’s ranking in the world to slip from 43 in 2009 to 47 in 2010. The government's influence over editorial content of publicly owned outlets is further bolstered by the rise of “embedded marketing” by the government when many media outlets are experiencing financial strains under global economic recession. These factors all posed threat to media independence in 2009.  In 2007 and 2008 Taiwan ranked 33 and 32, respectively.

There are concerns over a rise in sensationalism and a potential loss of quality, including a trend toward premature “trial by media” in cases of alleged corruption that have yet to work their way through the judicial system. Media freedom was also negatively impacted by media owners’ use of legal actions to silence critics of the Ma Administration and Beijing, government’s premature replacement of management and board members on the Public Television Service.

Christopher Walker Freedom House 3Based in New York, Freedom House is a non-governmental organization supporting democratic values and standards around the world. As Director of Studies, Walker helps oversee a team of senior analysts and researchers in devising overall strategy for Freedom House's analytical publications.

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The next day Taiwan's Central News Agency (a government funded public news outlet) ran an article with the headline that roughly translates into "Chen's final guilty verdict: Freedom House praises the strengthening of institutions." Unfortunately the entire CNA article, headline and all, was picked up by almost every media house in Taiwan.

The irony is that this latest incidence misrepresentation came when Walker had just cited some of the concerns on the deterioration of Taiwan's freedom in the press over the last year.
Taipei Times pulished the follow-up story (right panel).


News Coverage of the Event:

Taiwan Daily News (Mandarin)
NTDTV news report
Taipei Times
Liberty Times (Mandarin)

Taipei Times
2010 ELECTIONS: Director at Freedom House objects to CNA’s coverage

MISAPPREHENSION: Christopher Walker said the state-owned media misrepresented what he said in his speech on Taiwan’s democracy

By J. Michael Cole  /  Staff Reporter
Thu, Nov 18, 2010 - Page 3

The director of studies at US-based Freedom House yesterday accused state-owned Central News Agency (CNA) of “misapprehending” his comments regarding the judicial process in Taiwan and claiming that he saw a recent verdict against former president Chen Shui-bian as positive for Taiwan’s democratic development.

The Formosa Foundation, a Los Angeles-based non-profit organization, invited Christopher Walker to give a speech on freedom in Taiwan on Sunday, in which he focused on democratic processes, institutional transparency and media freedom in Taiwan and the region.

However, a CNA report of the event released the following day misrepresented his remarks on the judicial process in Taiwan in a way that made it appear he was specifically commenting on the corruption cases against Chen, Walker said.

The Chinese-language report, which has not been translated into English by the wire service, read: “After former president Chen Shui-bian recently [on Nov. 11] received his final [guilty] verdict, Christopher Walker ... said he believes that while this was a tough choice to make, punishing a corrupt regime with jail will help Taiwan’s democratic system become stronger.”

Still quoting Walker, the report continued: “Administrations that do not pay any attention to corruption will end eventually.”

“Walker said that strong democratic systems are generally not influenced by isolated events, however, because Taiwan is a young democracy, events like the Chen case will give rise to discussions about whether Taiwan’s democratic system is strong enough,” the article added.

Those passages, Walker told the Taipei Times yesterday, misrepresented what he said and put words in his mouth.

“Freedom House places emphasis on key areas of the democratic process and does not take a position on a specific case, as was suggested in these media reports relating to the case of former president Chen,” he said.

“Rather, our assessments focus on the degree to which a country’s institutions are operating in a transparent and accountable manner, and according to the rule of law,” Walker added.