Press passes for all nationalities

Why should 23 million Taiwanese be cut off from UN health information?

taiwan 88 298 (photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
taiwan 88 298
(photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
In recent months the international press has criticized the government of the People's Republic of China for its violent suppression of lamas and peaceful demonstrators in Tibet, and for otherwise trampling on human rights. Now it is time for the international community to put a stop to another violation of human rights - the denial of press freedom to Taiwan. Every year since 2004, the United Nations Department of Public Information has refused to issue press credentials for the World Health Assembly (WHA) to Taiwanese journalists, rendering them unable to cover that body's annual meeting. The stated reason for the refusal is that Taiwan is not a member of the World Health Organization (WHO). The Taiwanese people's health rights and their right to know are being violated on political grounds, contrary to the global understanding that the UN is obliged to uphold justice. 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." The UN, to honor freedom of the press, reviews the state of that freedom worldwide. Highlighting how important it considers press freedom to be, in 1993 it designated May 3 as World Press Freedom Day. The World Health Report 2007, the focus of which is "A Safer Future: Global Public Health Security in the 21st Century," stresses the importance of information-sharing and cooperation between nations to combat disease. The report emphasizes that the WHO must allocate more resources to setting up a comprehensive global epidemic prevention network. Moreover, Article 3 of the International Health Regulations of the WHO states that their "implementation… shall be guided by the goal of their universal application for the protection of all people of the world from the international spread of disease." But the WHO 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 WHA. If the international community were to further turn a blind eye and allow this policy to continue, due to pressure by China, it would threaten the global disease prevention network. TAIWAN FULLY respects press freedom. According to the US-based human rights organization Freedom House, Taiwan enjoyed the highest degree of press freedom in Asia in 2007. In democratic nations, journalists are seen as independent, not as representatives of their government or region. Indeed, in Taiwan journalists enjoy full independence and autonomy. Regrettably, at the UN the universal value of press freedom has not been respected. Despite its vow to safeguard human rights and protect press freedom, the UN, due to political considerations, has banned Taiwan's journalists from reporting on WHA activities, preventing them from doing their duty to satisfy the Taiwanese people's right to know. AS THE 2008 WHA prepares to meet on May 19, we make the following appeals: 1. Given that the right to know and freedom of the press should not be limited by national borders, freedom of the press should not be held to be the prerogative of WHO member states. 2. The goal of the WHO is to attain the highest possible degree of health for everyone, regardless of nationality or membership. The WHO and its parent organization, the UN, which champions global equity and human rights, should respect the rights of the 23 million people of Taiwan to health and information. 3. Regardless of how China oppresses Taiwan on the international stage, a free press should not be made the victim of an international political dispute. The UN and WHO should not allow political considerations to supersede press freedom and the spirit of journalistic independence. These organizations should, in respecting the principle of parity, lift their discriminatory ban on and issue WHA press passes to Taiwan's journalists. The writer is minister of Taiwan's Government Information Office.