TDB Vol. 3 No. 6: Defending Democracy Through Media Literacy

TDB Vol. 3 No. 6: Defending Democracy Through Media Literacy

Taiwan is at the forefront of the authoritarians’ war on information. Through multilateral symposia and an engaged civil society, it is developing new strategies to meet this direct challenge to democracy. Alison Hsiao and Nathan Liu show us what’s being done.

 

Held in September, the 2019 Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF) on “Defending Democracy Through Media Literacy II” International Workshop was a follow-up to the successful cooperation between Taiwan and international partners last year. The co-hosts of this year’s event expanded to include not only the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy (TFD), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) and the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), but also the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI), the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association, and the Swedish Trade and Investment Council in Taipei.

The return of the workshop shows that it was well received and its achievements were recognized, TFD Chairman Jia-chyuan Su said in his opening remarks, adding that it also attests to the fact that “the problem of disinformation has continued to be a challenge to democratic countries around the globe.”

Information battlefield

Chairman Su said that in recent years, people in democracies worldwide have begun to become aware that the amount of resources that certain authoritarian regimes have poured into foreign propaganda and social media platforms is beyond our imagination.

“In the case of Hong Kong’s recent protests, we’ve witnessed that the Chinese government has used state powers to manipulate certain media outlets in order to obfuscate what really happened in the city. We’ve also seen that many groups, fan pages, and accounts on the major social media platforms have been spreading disinformation intentionally, aiming to influence how internet users perceive the protests in Hong Kong and sway the international public opinion,” he said.

The disinformation surrounding Hong Kong’s protests is only the tip of the iceberg, Su said, adding that Taiwan is the main battlefield where foreign forces engage in influence operations through disinformation to harm democratic values. According to the latest report released by V-Dem, a research institute based at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, Taiwan is the most targeted among the 179 countries investigated for the spread of false information by foreign governments.

Also addressing the opening ceremony, Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said the spread of disinformation poses a serious threat to Taiwan’s democracy, especially as the presidential elections held early next year approach.

Japan’s Deputy Representative to Taiwan Nishiumi Shigehiro called for a balanced approach to tackle issues surrounding disinformation, adding that while democracy allows voters to choose their leaders based on correct information, we also have to be careful not to respond to disinformation at the expense of freedom of expression — also the very foundation of democracy.

Swedish Representative to Taiwan Håkan Jevrell cautioned that while information can be used rather harmlessly to influence our behavior, such as tempting a targeted population to buy certain consumer goods, authoritarian states are also using those tools to undermine our democracy.

NDI Vice President Shari Bryan likewise raised alarm over the challenges brought by technological advances that have fundamentally changed how we access and share information and exposed us to possible internal and external manipulations. “The threats and challenges are complex and evolving everyday and there is no one-size-fits-all solution,” she said. “We have to work together to equip our leaders in each community and country with the knowledge and the tools they need to assess their information environment … to counter the efforts of anti-democratic actors.”

American Institute in Taiwan Director William Brent Christensen said the U.S. National Security Strategy states that a geopolitical competition is currently being waged between free and repressive regimes and governments, adding that “nowhere is this truer than in the information battlefield.” The U.S., he said, is grappling with the spread of disinformation as foreign actors seek to use social media to influence elections, divide the American public, and undermine confidence in democratic institutions. “Taiwan is also on the frontline of this battle and faces the same challenges,” he said, adding that “responding to the challenge of disinformation is something no one society or government can do alone.”

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Scott Busby said there are few better places than Taiwan to have discussions on defending democracy through media literacy, both because of the success Taiwan has had in building the right to respect democracy as well as the threat posed by outside forces.

“Taiwan’s 2020 elections are just a few short months away, and China once again seeks to use disinformation to undermine the vote, divide the people, and sow seed of doubt in democratic system,” he said. “China has invested heavily to develop more sophisticated ways to anonymously disseminate disinformation through a number of channels, including social media. As their malign methods evolved, the motivation remains the same: to weaken democracy and the freedom that citizens of Taiwan have come to enjoy after so many hard years of struggle.”

Strategies to counter hostile disinformation

In his keynote address, Jakub Kalensky, a senior fellow at the Eurasian Center at the Atlantic Council who focuses on disinformation campaigns initiated by Russia, said that while the penetration of Russia’s operations in Europe often uses online platforms, journalists have also been complicit in this campaign. “Fear” toward differences is what the operations are after, which agents of disinformation manipulate to stir public emotions.

To counter the threat of disinformation, Kalensky proposed four strategic measures: (1) effectively documenting the threats; (2)  raising the public awareness; (3) repairing the weaknesses exploited by agents of disinformation; and (4) systematically punishing information aggressors to dissuade any further incidence, which is “not done often but has to be done otherwise we’ll never stop information aggression.”

Documenting threats is a daunting task and is “best done by governments since they have much bigger resources and since it is closely connected to security,” he said.

However, while already conducted by many organizations and government agencies, the task of monitoring has still not been performed sufficiently, he said. “We still don’t know how many channels the disinformers control, how many messages per day they spread, how many people they target, and because of that, we cannot even properly say whether there is an increase or decrease of a disinformation campaign in a particular country. We have impressions, but we lack solid data. We see fragments of the disinformation ecosystem, but we do not see the whole picture.”

On raising awareness, Kalensky called for “activity from every part of society — governments, journalists, NGOs, media, and private business,” each of which has different target audiences.

There are “systemic weaknesses” in our societies that need to be repaired, he said. Media literacy education “of the whole population will probably be more a role for the government, but also media can try and adhere to the highest possible journalistic standards,” Kalensky said. He also called on big tech companies to “stop promoting the disinformation-oriented outlets, de-rank them from search results, and label the content as toxic” in the social media environment.

But as we will always have some weaknesses, which “means the information aggressors will always have some weaknesses to exploit … it is necessary to start systematically punishing the disinformers,” he said, adding that this is not an appeal to create new rules or new laws, since in many cases there are already existing ones to be used.

“Individuals who are helping spread disinformation should be named and shamed by the media, by politicians, by NGOs, and by academics. The most aggressive and the most visible propagandists should be sanctioned,” he said. “Punishing the most visible propagandists and … individuals participating in spreading disinformation would send a clear signal that we do not tolerate the spreading of lies and hatred.”

Kalensky demanded equally strong measures from democratic countries and politicians when it comes to disinformation-oriented outlets, adding that access to them should be limited or cut off, providing them “with no accreditation, no access to press conferences, no statements for them, and no answers to their questions.” “These restrictions would make it clear that they are not media, as they themselves admit, but weapons in an information war,” he said.

Taiwan’s efforts

Taiwan’s civil society has been proactively involved in efforts to combat disinformation, including some creative initiatives launched by young people who are deeply anxious about “filter bubbles” and their impact on elderly users. Those initiatives seek to both combat Chinese interference in the short term and to strengthen Taiwan’s information landscape for the future.

With the January elections approaching, more attention has been paid to disinformation. In previous TDB articles, Alison Hsiao introduced China’s disinformation campaign and efforts to combat it through its partnership with the U.S. International media such as Foreign Policy, the Financial Times and Reuters have also highlighted the problem with in-depth investigations.

One Chinese tactic is to influence Taiwanese media companies.

Anger over Chinese influence in the media led to a protest in June calling for the government to discipline “red media,” meaning outlets that are used by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to spread information. According to the organizers, more than 100,000 people attended the protest, held on Ketagalan Boulevard in Taipei. Protesters called for legislation requiring greater transparency in media funding and foreign connections. Those in attendance were especially concerned with disproportionate coverage of ostensibly pro-China politicians by certain media outlets. For example, the National Communications Commission (NCC) found that CTiTV dedicated 70% of its airtime during May on Kuomintang (KMT) mayor and presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu.

This spring, Taiwanese students began collaborating on projects to tackle this challenge. The Youth Combatting Fake News Front (青年抵制假新聞陣線) is a coalition of over 100 student organizations which agreed to oppose unchecked facts, biased media, and Chinese dis/misinformation. The movement started with a campaign to “take back the TV remote,” in which students refused to watch news that disproportionately covered pro-China stories. Since its creation, the Front has petitioned media companies and legislators to commit to reforms.

In an interview, founder I-jou Wu (吳奕柔), a 21-year-old student at National Taiwan University (NTU), said the Front is best positioned to engage with other young people and the public. For example, the Front engages with students through workshops, forums, and high school visits. Wu added that the goal is not only to better inform her peers about China’s information warfare but to equip them to discuss the issue with older relatives. She explained that young people are usually sensitive to the importance of freedom and civil liberties. In contrast, parents and grandparents that grew up before democratization may not naturally understand the severity of China’s actions. For Wu, the current conflict in Hong Kong epitomizes the potentially existential threat that China poses to democracy.

Check your facts

While the Front and the anti-red-media protests focus on China and its influence on traditional media, others have taken a broader perspective. Many organizations feel a responsibility to fight all dis/misinformation, not just that which originates in China.

Fact-checking organizations are among the most prominent combatants. The Taiwan FactCheck Center (TFC), for example, is collaborating with Facebook, LINE, Google, the National Education Radio Station, and the Chinese Television System (CTS). The Internet platforms are sources where news can be verified, and all the partners are avenues for distributing the fact-checked reports. The TFC also hosts workshops such as “Let’s Talk,” a dialogue series with young people.

Cofacts (真的假的) is a fact-checking platform developed in response to fake news shared in the closed messaging app LINE (a popular platform among Taiwanese). LINE users send suspicious links to the Cofacts account, and a bot will automatically reply if the article is already checked and in the Cofacts database. If not, a Cofacts volunteer will write a response. In the past year, Cofacts has received approximately 209,000 forwarded messages.

The results have been impressive. Nick Monaco, of the Institute for the Future and Oxford’s Computational Propaganda Project, told reporters that “I’m not just being flattering in talking about Cofacts being a really innovative bot and solution for disinformation.”

One insight from Cofacts is that dangerous fake news may not necessarily be political. Some websites can be generated by content farms seeking profit. False advertisement, celebrity gossip, and medical information may lack the malicious intent of political propaganda but can still be harmful to society. For example, Cofacts has encountered websites that are encouraging cancer patients to reject modern medicine. Other lessons about fake news have been discovered by researchers such as Austin Wang and Puma Shen, who are busy examining Cofacts’ open data.

Cofacts founder Johnson Liang emphasizes that people who spread fake news are often “digital immigrants,” meaning that they are new to the Internet, such as the elderly. Research by the National Development Council has revealed that older people tend to be the most susceptible to fake news. Disputing an elder’s post can be regarded as rude or awkward, especially because sharing articles may be a gesture of affection, a way to say “I’m thinking of you.” Many fact-checkers have tried to address this problem. Cofacts has designed its messages to be gentle and friendly. A different chatbot, Aunt Meiyu (美玉姨), uses the Cofacts database but can be added to a group chat and will automatically check for fake news; therefore, only the automated responses are rude, not real family members or friends. Trend Micro’s Dr. Message has collected its own database to combine the two approaches (of Cofacts and Meiyu). Rumor&Truth and MyGoPen are fact-checking websites targeted towards elders that have features to ease navigation.

The Fake News Cleaner (假新聞清潔劑) initiative uses another tactic to reach older neighbors. This group of volunteers hopes to cultivate media literacy through face-to-face interactions. After the 2018 referendums revealed divisions within Taiwanese society, the group recognized the need to break through echo chambers and bridge generational gaps. Fake News Cleaners go to public areas to engage strangers, especially the elderly, in conversations about fake news. They employ tactics to be approachable, including discussing health news rather than politics, designing messages that appeal to elders, and use games. For example, volunteers might ask passersby to identify problems in an article, with a useful prize as a reward. Their goal is to spread awareness with compassion, not condescension. Some organizations such as community associations, colleges, and senior centers have invited the Fake News Cleaners to present seminars about fake news. The organization says these seminars have been successful because they are in-person opportunities to use empathetic communication.

Combatting disinformation and fake news is a daunting task, one which Taiwanese civil society is committed to meeting head-on.

 

Feature photo: The 2019 Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF) on “Defending Democracy Through Media Literacy II” International Workshop opened on Sept. 10, 2019.

TDB Vol. 3 No. 2: Building Tolerance and Inclusiveness: An NGO Conversation with 2018 ADHRA Laureate Gusdurian Network Indonesia

TDB Vol. 3 No. 2: Building Tolerance and Inclusiveness: An NGO Conversation with 2018 ADHRA Laureate Gusdurian Network Indonesia

Three leaders talk about the importance of building a culture of communication to counter intolerance, conservatism and radicalism. Olivia Yang reports.

“Justice will never be an accomplished state. As long as there are individuals and people on this earth, there would always be conflicts. Justice and a world equal for all will always be an elusive state. But humanity progresses. It is almost like a dance as old as time. Two steps ahead, one step back. Sometimes one step ahead and two steps back.”

Thus spoke Alissa Wahid at the 2018 Asia Democracy and Human Rights Award (ADHRA) ceremony in Taipei on Dec. 10, 2018.

Wahid is the founder and national coordinator for the Gusdurian Network Indonesia (GNI), laureate of the 13th ADHRA. The non-governmental organization is currently one of Indonesia’s leading groups combating radicalism and defending those who are discriminated against due to religious and minority suppression.

Established in 2010, the GNI is named after late Indonesian President K.H. Abdurahman Wahid, who was also known colloquially in Indonesia as “Gus Dur.” President Wahid was the first democratically elected president in Indonesia and had strived to promote interfaith dialogue and multiculturalism. His work became an inspiration for many Indonesians, also called “Gusdurians,” even after his death in 2009. The GNI was founded after his passing to encourage and consolidate interaction among Gusdurians, and further promote Gus Dur’s advocacy for minority rights, religious freedom and tolerance.

The main challenges in Indonesia today are religious populism, “hate spins,” radicalism and violent extremism, said Ms. Wahid. This is where the GNI comes in, as the arena for people from all backgrounds to work together as a democracy, especially at a time when the space for human rights activists is becoming gradually restrictive.

“‘God needs no defense,’ Gus Dur used to say. But now we see how God and religion are capitalized to gain political power, to discriminate [against] others, to do injustices. And when done in the name of God, how powerful. So this is [what] we currently focus on,” Wahid said in her acceptance speech.

Reverend Lazarus Chen (陳思豪) of the Koteng Presbyterian Church in Taiwan echoed similar concerns during a conversation with Wahid.

Chen is one of the religious leaders who have publicly supported marriage equality, especially during the lead-up to Taiwan’s referendum on the issue late last year.

Taiwan’s Constitutional Court on May 24, 2017, ruled that Taiwan’s Civil Code violates the Constitution’s guarantees of freedom of marriage and people’s equality. It gave the Taiwanese government two years to amend the law or pass new legislation to legalize same-sex unions.

In the local elections last November, a total of five referendum motions regarding LGBTQI rights were put on the ballot. Three of the motions aimed to refuse same-sex marriage under the Civil Code and ban LGBTQI education in schools. All three motions were approved in the referenda, while the other two pro-LGBTQI rights motions were not.

In the conversation with Wahid, Chen lamented the fear-mongering in Taiwan’s recent anti-same-sex-marriage campaign. According to him, most Christians in Taiwan believe that the Bible claims that homosexuality is a sin and therefore they do not support same-sex marriage. The results of the referenda, the reverend said, were “manipulated by Christians in Taiwan.”

“They use any kind of resource, including spreading disinformation, to influence and frighten the people in Taiwan to refuse same-sex marriage,” he said.

But he also pointed out that Christians only account for 6 percent of the island-nation’s population and called for non-Christian Taiwanese to “not be led by the few vicious Christians.” The reverend then stressed the importance of building a culture of debate and communication in Taiwan.

Wahid emphasized the value of dialogue, adding that although initiating theological conversations on LGBTQI issues in Indonesia is still very challenging — dangerous, even — “it has to start somewhere.”

“I think GNI is the only group that would put a transgender speaker in front of people on a stage, said Wahid. “But it takes a lot of work.”

The GNI national coordinator also emphasized the importance of staying close to those who hold different opinions and not treating them “as enemies because we need to influence them to have different perspectives.”

While working to enhance communication between groups that hold different values, Taiwan also strives to build tolerance toward Southeast Asian migrant workers, who currently account for nearly 700,000 of the country’s population.

Chang Cheng (張正), also a speaker at the conversation with Wahid, works to resolve the discrimination between Southeast Asians and Taiwanese through his Southeast Asia-themed bookstore, Brilliant Time Bookstore.

The bookstore runs a program called, “Bring Back A Book that You Cannot Read.” It encourages Taiwanese who travel to Southeast Asian countries to return with a book which is then given to migrant workers or spouses in Taiwan. This gives Taiwanese an opportunity to show kindness towards the migrant workers, said Chang. In addition to the program, the bookstore hosts around 30 talks each year on Southeast Asia topics to help the Taiwanese people learn more about the region and its cultures.

Chang also launched the Taiwan Literature Award for Migrants in 2014 with a goal to give and facilitate the Taiwan society in learning more about them. The first prize for the literature award is NT$100,000 (US$3,200), and last year, the award also received submissions from migrant workers in Hong Kong, Macau, Malaysia and Singapore. Chang said they are expecting to expand to South Korea and Japan this year.

“If we learn more about them, discrimination will be less,” said Chang. “In the dark, it is everyone’s duty to hold the torch.”

Reverend Lazarus Chen, Chang Cheng, Alissa Wahid, and moderator Taiwan Foundation for Democracy Vice President Ketty W. Chen (left to right). Photo Credit: Taiwan Foundation for Democracy

 

Feature photo: 2018 Asia Democracy and Human Rights Award Recipient Gusdurian Network Indonesia National Coordinator Alissa Wahid. Photo Credit: 黃謙賢/Taiwan Foundation for Democracy

TDB Vol. 2. No. 3: Deportations of Taiwanese Suspects to China Violate Rights of Taiwanese

Several countries have deported Taiwanese fraud suspects to China in recent years, a new trend that undermines Taiwan’s sovereignty and raises issues as to the ability of the suspects to receive a fair trial. Olivia Yang looks at this development.

 

Philippine authorities on Jan. 13 arrested 133 Taiwanese and Chinese suspects in a crackdown on telecom scams. While it remains to be seen where the suspects will be deported, over 500 Taiwanese nationals worldwide have been deported to China since 2014, nearly 300 of them last year alone.

The deported Taiwanese have been suspected of working with telecom or cyber fraud rings in countries including Kenya, Malaysia, Cambodia, Armenia, Vietnam, and Spain.

The Spanish National Court last December made two decisions that granted Beijing’s request for 214 Taiwanese and Chinese fraud suspects to be deported to China.

“The international community, except for those countries with which (Taiwan) has diplomatic relations, consider Taiwan to be part of China and take the view that its independence cannot be achieved unilaterally,” reads the Madrid Court’s written ruling.

While the move was “welcomed” by the Chinese side, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) “expressed deep regret and dissatisfaction” over the decision.

“[T]he Republic of China (ROC) is a sovereign state. Mainland China must face the fact of the existence of the ROC,” reads a statement from the MAC. “The various tactics used by Beijing to pressure Taiwan in the international arena only increase the resentment of the Taiwan public and are absolutely unacceptable to the people of Taiwan.”

It has yet to be determined how many out of the over 200 suspects arrested in Spain are Taiwanese, said Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), since officials have been unable to visit and identify them.

Beijing’s argument

Countries that have sent Taiwanese fraud suspects to China have cited Beijing’s “one China” — often confused with a country’s “one China” policy — in which Beijing maintains that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China. Beijing has also defended the deportations, saying that the victims of the crimes were Chinese citizens, a claim that has been backed by China’s diplomatic allies.

Another argument China uses is that Taiwanese suspects often receive lighter sentences, or none, when sent back to Taiwan.

Twenty suspects arrested in a Malaysian telephone scam case were deported back to Taiwan and then released due to lack of evidence in April 2016. However, after Latvia last year turned down Beijing’s request to send 110 Taiwanese suspects to China, 44 of them on Jan. 20 were charged with aggravated fraud by a Taiwan court.

China, on the other hand, on Dec. 21, 2017 convicted 44 Taiwanese of operating telephone scams from Kenya and Indonesia. Two were sentenced to 15 years in jail, while the remaining 42 received sentences of up to 14 years in jail and fined.

Taiwan’s MOFA has protested against Beijing’s actions and condemned them as violations of human rights, especially in cases like Armenia, where the government “neither released information concerning the case during the investigation nor disclosed the location of the ROC nationals.”

But the objections have had little effect, as overseas Taiwanese suspects are continuously deported to China.

Regarding the 2016 Kenya case, international human rights organization Amnesty International expressed concerns that Taiwanese suspects “face a real risk of human rights violations” when sent to China.

“If deported to China, they could face serious violations of their fair trial rights.There is no doubt Kenya cherishes its relationship with China, but by no means should it sacrifice these individuals’ rights for political expediency, the due process of the law must be respected,” said Victor Odero, Amnesty International’s East Africa Campaigner.

According to the Human Rights Watch 2017 World Report, Taiwanese suspects deported from Armenia, Cambodia, and Kenya, “were given no discernible opportunity to contest their deportations before a competent court in those countries.”

Corruption and politics meddling in China’s legal system

Academics and experts have over the years written extensively on corruption within the Chinese legal system and how politics control law in Beijing.

In a 2016 Foreign Policy article, Jerome A. Cohen, co-director of the U.S.-Asia Law Institute at New York University School of Law, wrote that even though Chinese President Xi Jinping has emphasized the government’s efforts to end corruption within China’s legal system, “in principle the party controls the legal system at every level.”

“Despite his emphasis on ‘rule of law,’ Xi wants local courts reliably to submit to the discipline of the central party and judicial officials. He doesn’t want local judges to be independent of the central government, but he does aim to stop the local influences that distort local judgments,” Cohen wrote.

China’s criminal justice system is also known to violate human rights by denying suspects’ access to family members or lawyers of their own choosing while awaiting trial. There have also been many cases in which the state prevented lawyers from meeting clients or accessing necessary court material.

In March 2017, Taiwanese human rights activist Lee Ming-che disappeared while traveling in China. Chinese authorities later that month confirmed they were detaining Lee on suspicion of “subverting state power.” Lee went on trial in September 2017 in the Yueyang Intermediate People’s Court for attempts to promote human rights and democratic values on social media and messaging platforms. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced five years in jail last November.

The Taiwanese activist was unable to contact his family since his detention. Lee’s lawyer was also appointed by the Chinese court.

On May 29, 2009, China and Taiwan signed a “Cross-Strait Joint Crime-Fighting and Judicial Mutual Assistance Agreement” which stipulates that each side should “provide facilitation for visits by family members in accordance with each Party’s own rules and regulations.”

After Lee’s verdict was handed down, Taiwan Presidential Office Spokesperson Alex Huang said the manner in which China handled Lee’s case had damaged cross-Strait relations and challenged Taiwanese people’s belief in freedom and democracy.

This development has also raised fears that China may eventually pressure governments worldwide to send to China Taiwanese nationals who are suspected of having committed other types of “crimes” as defined by Chinese law, such as encouraging “separatism.”

Taiwanese human rights activist Lee Ming-che.

 

Top photo: From Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0.

TDB Vol. 2 No. 1: BERSIH 2.0: More than Just Street Protests

TDB Vol. 2 No. 1: BERSIH 2.0: More than Just Street Protests

Maria Chin Abdullah, head of the recipient of the 2017 Asia Democracy and Human Rights Award, shares her views on democracy and the role of civic groups with Taiwanese NGOs. Olivia Yang reports.

 

“We are trying to define democracy in Malaysia, to say that it is all right for you to speak up, it’s all right to not fear them. Because once we show fear, we back down, we compromise.”

BERSIH 2.0 Chairperson Maria Chin Abdullah is speaking at a discussion with Taiwan NGOs in Taipei on Dec. 10, 2017. The Malaysia-based coalition had just been presented with the 2017 Asia Democracy and Human Rights Award earlier that day, and proceeded to share her experiences with Taiwan NGOS on how civil societies in Asia advocate for fair and clean elections.

While BERSIH 2.0 is well-known for its sea of bright yellow-clad protesters in the streets of major cities around the world, rallies are not the only approach the coalition takes in expanding civil political participation throughout Malaysia.

“At any time now we can confidently say we can bring 100,000 people to the streets, but it took us 10 years to build up this momentum,” says Maria Chin Abdullah. “The other thing we are saying to the government is that you have to respect rule of law. We are actually challenging them.”

To build more awareness among Malaysians on the importance of civil participation in public affairs, BERSIH 2.0 has come up with new strategies. These include organizing electoral observations, forming a Delineation Action and Research Team (DART), and holding boot camps that provide education on the basics of democracy, elections and mass mobilization.

But the coalition’s efforts have not all been carried out smoothly.

Maria Chin Abdullah says that “as we get more sophisticated in reaching out to people, the state also gets more sophisticated in trying to counter us.”

BERSIH 2.0 Chairperson Maria Chin Abdullah at the 2017 Asia Democracy and Human Rights Award Ceremony. (Photo: 黃謙賢 / TFD).

Pushback from the government is not unexpected; however BERSIH 2.0 is also seeing frustration from the civil society. Sometimes people want quick solutions to changing the government, which is very difficult due to the “uneven” system, says the BERSIH 2.0 chairperson.

“People think that just because they vote they should get the results they want. But it doesn’t work that way.”

While elections in Taiwan are comparatively clean and fair, challenges like vote-buying still exist.

Huang Shiow-duan is a standing board member at Transparency International Chinese Taipei (TICT) and chairperson of Citizen Congress Watch (CCW), a coalition of NGOs that monitors the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s Parliament.

During the conversation with BERSIH 2.0, Huang gave examples of how the organizations she is affiliated with are fighting corruption in the island-nation.

From 2013 to 2014, TICT collaborated with the Tainan District Prosecutors Office to produce a series of anti-corruption animated education videos. Huang says it is crucial to start anti-corruption education from a young age, and children can also be more persuasive in communicating information to older generations.

CCW, on the other hand, supervises Taiwan’s parliamentarians by broadcasting legislative sessions and making legislative documents accessible to the public. It also evaluates legislators once every six months and the evaluation report is made public so that civil society, along with legislators, are aware of their performance.

“I don’t think the government will clean itself. It needs supervision. That’s why we need to create a system of separation of power,” says Huang.

Compared to TICT and CCW, Watchout Co. is a younger NGO founded in 2013 with a mission of lowering the threshold of political participation. Being a media platform, Watchout empowers the people by sharing facts and informed opinions in a way that is easy to consume. It also utilizes social media and technology to oversee the government.

But echoing Maria Chin Abdullah, Yu Chih-hao, design and technology lead at Watchout, says that “empowering the people is the ultimate solution — but it’s the toughest solution.”

The main challenges Watchout faces is coming up with methods to free people’s time and minds, and getting other media outlets to distribute its information so the facts flow between different eco-chambers.

Yu nevertheless emphasizes the importance of democratic countries defining their own democracy and learning from each other.

“Practicing democracy in Taiwan is our lifeline,“ says Yu. “It’s one of the factors that differentiate Taiwan from China, and it’s one of the factors that get Taiwan international recognition and respect.”

“Democracy does not happen overnight. Democracy takes time,” says Maria Chin Abdullah. “We are struggling. We are backsliding. But I still believe in the power of the people.”

Top photo:  BERSIH 2.0 Chairperson Maria Chin Abdullah speaking at a discussion with Taiwan NGOs in Taipei on Dec. 10, 2017. (Photo: Olivia Yang).

 

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