Freedom of expression is a fundamental right for both individuals and the media. But it is not unlimited and does not protect defamation and slander.

by Camelia Marin*

*Introduction to the international webinar “Media as Friends and Foes of FoRB—and the Tai Ji Men Case,” co-organized by CESNUR and Human Rights Without Frontiers on May 8, 2024, after World Press Freedom Day (May 3).

An article already published in Bitter Winter on May 11th, 2024.

The United Nations reminds us that freedom of the press is under attack in several countries. AI-generated elaboration of UN posters.
The United Nations reminds us that freedom of the press is under attack in several countries. AI-generated elaboration of UN posters.

We all know and appreciate the mediation and information role of journalists and the mass media. Over time, through the precious information provided in crisis situations, the necessity of the mass media as an element of interconnection and updating has been established. This necessity is recognized in the celebration of the specially designated day—World Press Freedom Day, which is dedicated to the importance of journalism and freedom of expression.

Unfortunately, there are also situations when dis/misinformation about different issues, spread by mass media, has consequences upon people’s lives, especially when it comes to freedom of belief and the protection of such vulnerable communities as minority religions are.

World Press Freedom Day was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in December 1993, following the recommendation of UNESCO’s General Conference. After 30 years, the historic connection made between the freedom to seek, impart, and receive information and the public good remains as relevant as it was at the time of its proclamation.

This day of observance is also a day of reflection among media professionals about issues of press freedom and professional ethics.

We all know that freedom of expression is a fundamental right protected by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and may be exercised while respecting certain conditions. Freedom of expression is seen as a prime necessity in a democratic society. However, together with the rights come a series of obligations that are interdependent with other values, ​​human rights, and freedoms protected by the same international treaties.

Among the obligations related to the right to freedom of expression is the duty to protect human dignity and the respect for the reputation and the rights of others, including freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.

Family Federation/Unification Church protests against media slander in Japan.
Family Federation/Unification Church protests against media slander in Japan.

Where is the limit within which freedom of expression can be manifested without prejudice to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion? Freedom of conscience ensures that all are free to form their own beliefs about the world in which they live and how social life unfolds. The protection of minority opinions is an essential component of pluralism and tolerance in any democratic society.

What is too often forgotten is that freedom of expression is not an absolute right but is regulated by law and should be moderated by responsibility. One may freely express oneself, but in doing so, one should not commit abuses and damage the rights or reputation of others by making false and misleading statements. Unfortunately, this recommendation is largely ignored or not respected across all levels, whether in governmental institutions, mass media, or by individuals. The result is that this perceived total freedom of expression, if it does not include the obligation not to harm the dignity of others, is in the end not a real freedom.

In Denmark, the country in which our organization is based, the Fundamental Rights Agency has published a report on discrimination, hatred, or violence against specific groups as seen in the media and political sphere. Their conclusion was that both the media and political discourse incite to discrimination, hatred, or violence against specific groups.

While we celebrate Word Press Freedom Day it is good to be reminded that our own right to express ourselves includes the obligation to manifest informed opinions, and the obligation to consider the short- and long-term consequences for others when we express misinformation or incomplete truths.

To find the right solution for respecting both freedom of expression and other human rights, especially when it comes to mass media, we suggest to them to see the higher perspective, and to the society as a whole to facilitate freedom of expression as a way to cultivate our own inner development. We must encourage all levels of society to speak from their heart and strive towards a more eloquent and mature formulation of questions of conscience, thought, and belief and how we relate to them.

An example of misinterpretation is a situation from Denmark, where one of Soteria International’s guests at a conference about freedom of expression, Professor Siri Tellier from the University of Copenhagen, used the case of the documentary film “The Mosques Behind the Veil” to draw some lessons. Reporting on the film in Danish media had given the impression that an imam was giving a young woman the advice that she should accept that her husband was beating her, and not report it to the police, thus going against both Danish values and Danish law. Tellier noted that when the woman finally saw clips from the film, it seemed she had been somewhat misrepresented.

Poster for the Danish documentary film “Moskeerne bag sløret” (The Mosques Behind the Veil). From X.
Poster for the Danish documentary film “Moskeerne bag sløret” (The Mosques Behind the Veil). From X.

From our research focused on the impact of media and technology on human life, we can say that words have enormous power, and they can do much harm. However, due to the fact that this phenomenon is not well enough known or recognized, we do not treat these cases in such a severe manner as we would if someone would poison our water, even though the effect can be equally devastating.

The media’s stigmatization of people and practices indeed has consequences and restrict the boundaries of people’s experiences, thoughts, and actions.

This is a good opportunity to remember the classical golden rule of ethics, actually shared by almost all the existing spiritual traditions: treat other people as you wish them to treat you. It is not a limitation of your freedom of speech to behave properly.

I mentioned the case in Denmark, and today we will examine another example, from Taiwan, where over 400 publications represented in a slanderous way the practices and activities of the Shifu (Grand Master) and dizi (disciples) of Tai Ji Men at the beginning of the Tai Ji Men case.

Tai Ji Men protests in Taiwan.
Tai Ji Men protests in Taiwan.

In 1996, the Taiwanese government conducted a political purge targeting religious organizations. A prosecutor named Hou Kuan-Jen falsely accused Tai Ji Men and its Shifu, Dr. Hong Tao-Tze, of fraud, tax evasion, and even “raising goblins,” with false witnesses and fabricated evidence, and spread his falsehoods through the media.

The Tai Ji Men Case teach us that prosecutors do not always tell the truth. They can manipulate the media that, in turn, are eager to publish sensational news about minorities they know very little about.

It took Tai Ji Men more than a decade to be found innocent of tax evasion and all other charges by the criminal division of the Supreme Court in 2007, which also confirmed that Tai Ji Men did not owe any tax, although the National Taxation Bureau has continued to harass the movement to this very day. In the meantime, a false and slanderous image of Tai Ji Men had been created and spread by the media.

Media slander, however, can be resisted. Over the past 28 years, under the leadership of Dr. Hong, Tai Ji Men dizi have never given up hope and have always insisted on doing the right thing, seeking peace, love, and conscience.