As a journalist and blogger, I was alarmed by the recent news that a Taiwanese blogger has been sentenced to jail after writing a negative post about a beef noodle restaurant. It is important to note that the court decision to find her guilty of defamation was not based solely on her complaints about the establishment’s food (she also criticized its cleanliness and called the boss an “evil tyrant” after a heated argument over parking), but the ruling still has troubling implications for Taiwan’s freedom of speech. It has also clearly hit a nerve worldwide: the case has been mentioned on Time magazine’s Web site, the Daily Mail and Boing Boing, among many other publications.
I review restaurants as a features reporter for the Taipei Times (which, as far as I know, was the first newspaper to report on the case in English) and frequently post about places to eat on this blog. I always thought the main thing I had to worry about was an irate reader telling me that an eatery I reviewed positively gave him or her massive indigestion, not getting thrown in prison. (The Taipei Times just reported today that another blogger is being sued for posting negatively about a restaurant).
Most news reports only identify the blogger by her surname, but her full name, Liu Ying-hui (劉英慧) was published in this Apple Daily article and used in the decision by Taichung branch of Taiwan High Court judge Chang Chih-Hsiung (張智雄). (As a tangent, I’m not sure why many Taiwan media reports only use surnames. Can someone fill me in on this? I’ve heard privacy cited as the reason but that does not make sense if the name is already public record and the case does not involve a minor or sexual assault.) Many reports about the case make it sound as if Liu was punished for negatively reviewing the restaurant’s food, but the ruling against her hinged in large part on her criticisms of its cleanliness and description of owner Yang Su-chiao (楊穗嬌) as an “evil tyrant” (惡霸).
Liu wrote her post last August (her blog has since been shut down, but the article has been reproduced here and is also excerpted in the court decision) after a verbal altercation with Yang and two of his customers, who Liu claimed had blocked traffic by double-parking their cars on the street. Liu wrote her post after returning to her nearby office. After relating her version of the conflict, Liu added that the restaurant was unsanitary, infested with cockroaches and served unpleasant tasting food. Yang’s daughter found the post and, along with her father, contacted the police.
During the trial, one of her colleagues testified that Liu had previously said the restaurant was a “little dirty,” but that the food was “tolerable.” Though Liu sent a friend to the restaurant to snap photographs that she said proved the interior was unsanitary (you can see some of the pictures in this Formosa Television news report), Judge Chang decided that Liu’s criticisms of the restaurant’s cleanliness and food were without merit and written in retaliation for her argument with Yang. The restaurant’s hygiene and food were unrelated to the parking issue, Chang ruled, and Liu’s ultimate goal was to negatively impact Yang’s reputation and business.
Liu is not facing jail just because she criticized the restaurant’s dishes, but I still think the punishment levied against her is excessive. Taiwan has extremely strict anti-defamation laws, but the way they are written leaves a lot of room for interpretation. In 2008, for instance, a woman sued one of her neighbors for calling her “auntie,” which the 35-year-old claimed insinuated she was old and a “country bumpkin” (the police tried but failed to get her to drop the lawsuit). The year before, however, a prosecutor found that telling someone to go fuck their mother does not count as a public insult. The Apple Daily article I mentioned above has a list of three cases similiar to Liu VS Yang from 2005 to 2010 (if you are wondering, PO is slang for “post online,” not “pissed off,” as I originally believed. Taiwanese slang is so befuddling.).
Since this case has received so much attention, it’s important to look at it from a global perspective. It’s not just a quirky story about a weird court decision in a tiny country. It is relevant to anyone who uses the Internet to share his or her point of view. In the US, there have been many high profile cases in which people were fired or sued for something they posted online. In 2008, a New Jersey judge found a blogger could not invoke the state’s press shield law after criticizing a software company on an online message board (the blogger lost). Biology professor and writer PZ Myers was sued in 2007 for posting a negative book review (the lawsuit was quickly withdrawn). Bloggers have also faced lawsuits for defamation in Malaysia and Kuwait after posting critical restaurant reviews (there are much more cases, of course, but these are the ones I found after a quick Google search).
While it is important to make sure there are safeguards against slander and libel, I believe that anti-defamation laws like Taiwan’s ultimately do more harm than good. Freedom House notes that public insult laws (in Taiwan and other countries) can be used as an excuse to limit freedom of the press (PDF link). (It is also worth noting that Taipei’s Freedom House press ranking has gradually declined since 2008; the DC think tank also lowered Taiwan’s civil liberties ranking last year).
How will the decision against Liu impact me as a reporter and blogger? It won’t because I am not going to change how I report or write, no matter what I beat I work (or which country I am in). As a lifestyle reporter, I currently have the luxury of picking stories about people, places or things I genuinely like, but over the last 8 years I have covered New York City public policy as an investigative reporting intern for the Village Voice, that city’s public education system and the stock market, and many of the articles I worked on were critical in tone. I stand by everything I write for publication or this blog. I do not like hurting people’s feelings and I certainly do not want to be sued, but being dishonest would be much worse. After all, every time my byline appears, it’s my reputation on the line, too.