Protecting a Free Press Requires International Cooperation

Regardless of how China oppresses Taiwan on the international stage, Taiwan's free press should not be made the victim of an international political dispute.

In recent months, the international press has criticized the government of the People's Republic of China for its violent suppression of protestors in Tibet and for its trampling of human rights. Now it is time for the international community to put a stop to another, more covert violation of human rights—the denial of press freedom to Taiwan's journalists.

Every year since 2004, the United Nations Department of Public Information has refused to issue press credentials to journalists from Taiwan, rendering them unable to cover the annual meetings of the World Health Assembly. The reason for such discrimination, as stated by the United Nations, is that Taiwan is not a member of the World Health Organization. Taiwan's exclusion from this global body is regrettable and unjustified, and engineered entirely by the political machinations of China.

By refusing to grant Taiwan's reporters press credentials to cover the W.H.A., the United Nations has effectively denied the people of Taiwan their right to know about crucial, timely health information. Not only does this behavior run contrary to the global understanding that the United Nations is obliged to uphold justice, but it also clearly indicates that the health and rights of the Taiwanese people are being violated on purely political grounds. In this, the United Nations is complicit with China.

Freedom of the press is a universal value that transcends politics. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states,

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

In honor of the importance of press freedom, in 1993 the United Nations even designated May 3 as "World Press Freedom Day." In democratic Taiwan, as in all democratic nations, freedom of the press is highly respected. Journalists are fully independent and disassociated from the government. In fact, according to the United States-based human rights organization Freedom House, in 2007 Taiwan enjoyed the highest degree of press freedom in all of Asia.

Article 3 of the International Health Regulations of the World Health Organization emphasizes "the protection of all people of the world from the international spread of disease." Furthermore, the 2007 World Health Report, "A Safer Future: Global Public Health Security in the 21st Century," stresses the importance of information sharing and cooperation between nations to combat disease epidemics. Yet the W.H.O. has weakened its own epidemic prevention mechanism and created a loophole in the global health network by barring Taiwan's journalists from reporting at the W.H.A. By turning a blind eye to such a discriminatory policy, the international community is allowing the global disease prevention network to be seriously threatened.

As the 2008 W.H.A. prepares to convene on May 19, we make the following appeals:

  • The goal of the W.H.O. is to attain the highest possible degree of health for everyone regardless of nationality or membership;

  • Freedom of the press and the right to know should not be limited by national borders or determined subjectively by W.H.O. member states;

  • The United Nations and the W.H.O. should not allow political considerations to supersede press freedom and the spirit of journalistic independence.

Regardless of how China oppresses Taiwan on the international stage, Taiwan's free press should not be made the victim of an international political dispute. The W.H.O. and the United Nations, which champion global equity and human rights, must respect the right of the 23 million people of Taiwan to secure timely health-related information. Therefore, it is imperative that the W.H.O. and the United Nations lift their discriminatory ban on Taiwan and issue press passes to Taiwan's journalists for the W.H.A.