Tragic Suicide Sparks Online Manhunt and Turn to Gutter Journalism in Taiwan

Photo Credit: 林奕含臉書
Why you need to know

Taiwan has the freest press in Asia, but is this freedom put to good use?

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Taiwan’s press is riding high on a wave of international praise. International media advocacy group Reporters Without Borders recently decided to locate its first Asian bureau in Taipei, citing Taiwan’s relatively strong media freedoms. Freedom House, the Washington-based group championing human rights around the world, improved its appraisal of Taiwan’s civil liberties based largely on what it considered strong demonstrations of media independence and academic freedom.

But one local media watchdog group says that a reporting frenzy in recent weeks that has developed around an incident of suicide has revealed some of the remaining weaknesses of Taiwan’s media system.

Taiwan Media Watch points to the sensationalized coverage of the case of Lin Yi-han (林奕含), a young author who took her own life, which has repeatedly made its way to the front pages of the nation’s major newspapers since the story broke in late April.

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The public was enraged following allegations that sexual abuse at the hands of Lin’s much older high school tutor was to blame for her suicide, and an online manhunt sprung up to identify the alleged victimizer.

Rather than providing a sober counterpoint to the frenzied online reaction, Taiwan’s professional media instead followed the lead of internet forums, providing coverage that has often slid into the mode of tabloid exposé focusing largely on the personal background of victim and the alleged victimizer.

“The media failed to find the correct standards to determine how to cover this case,” says Taiwan Media Watch’s director of public affairs, Dr. Lin Fu-yueh (林福岳). “In the end, many reports were sensationalized or focused on gossip, and never managed to really get at the important issues behind this story.”

By uncritically reporting the postings of Taiwan’s angry net users, observers warn that Taiwan’s press has blurred the lines between professional media and zealous amateurs, and that as we progress ever further into the internet age, news organizations are failing to define their role in a diversifying media environment.

The public takes the lead

News emerged about the death of the 26-year-old novelist on April 27. Shortly after, her parents released a public statement through the publisher of her debut novel in which they claimed that the contents of that novel were based on real-life experiences of the author. The novel portrays the story of Fang Ssu-chi (房思琪), a 13-year-old girl who is seduced into a romantic relationship by her cram school teacher and then coerced into sex.

Lin’s parents alleged that such a relationship had taken place eight to nine years ago, and that the trauma caused by that experience was to blame for their daughter’s suicide. "She wrote the book because she hoped there will never be another Fang Ssu-chi in society," they were quoted as saying by local media.

Lin’s parents did not name anyone in their statement. Despite speculation after the release of the novel in February of this year, Lin herself never confirmed whether or not her work was autobiographical. Nevertheless, internet vigilantes were quick to take up the search to track down and identify the alleged abuser. Based on information contained within the novel, these online sleuths identified cram school teacher Chen Kuo-hsing (陳國星).

An investigation has now been opened into the case with Chen listed as a suspect, but many feel that the government has been too slow to take on the case. Dr. Lin explains that the public attention garnered by the case reflects this widely felt frustration with Taiwan’s legal system. “Many feel that if the government isn’t going to deal with this case, if the legal system is not going to deal with it, then we’ll just let the media and average citizens deal with this,” says Dr. Lin.

Media organizations were quick to pick up on this hunger for some form of justice. Dr. Lin says that in order to maintain viewership, many outlets simply told their audience what they wanted to hear. “The media got to know the views of the average people, and then just reflected them right back,” he says. This was apparent in the tone adopted by many articles, which often referred to Chen with a label that roughly translates to “the suspected predator teacher (疑狼師)."

Articles for major national publications reported on postings in online forums. Some detailed the findings of netizens, who meticulously picked over descriptions in Lin’s novel and compared them to the finer points of Chen’s real-life background, from his personal interests, to details of his family, to the decorations in his home. Other articles simply quoted verbatim online comments denouncing both Chen and Lin Yi-han without providing additional verification or commentary.

When reporters were dispatched to gather additional information on the story they were often sent to further investigate Chen’s background. In one case a reporter interviewed the manager of the building complex that Chen lived in to learn more about his whereabouts. In another, many papers reported on an interview with one of Chen’s former students who told reporters that she had kept in touch with Chen after high school and had once been invited to his home. The report hinted at nefarious intentions but did not actually report any criminal activity, alleged or otherwise.

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Internet vigilantes, many communicating via discussion boards like the popular PTT site, were quick to take up the search to track down and identify the alleged abuser.
The story worth telling

Chen maintained his silence for more than a week, but he finally broke it in a public statement wherein he admitted to having had a two-month affair with Lin Yi-han, which he described as consensual in nature. In the statement, he claimed that the affair took place when Lin was above Taiwan’s age of legal consent.

Dr. Lin of Taiwan Media Watch argues that reports naming Chen prior to his public statement were inappropriate given that all allegations against him were based on a novel, a statement given by bereaved parents and the detective work of nameless internet users. Even after Chen came forward, Dr. Lin says the media should have steered clear of speculation and rumors, but instead, its performance demonstrates the industry's lack of self-discipline with the worst offenders in his regard being the click-hungry internet media.

“As soon as they started looking at this news, they began to go in the direction of sensationalism because that’s the best way to get people to look at your content,” he says.

“There are many different angles from which to view this news,” he says.

Others have identified the need for improved screening measures to weed out problematic teachers and Taiwan’s scant public resources for mental health treatment.

“But instead, the media decided to focus on the relationship between the student and the teacher. I don’t think the media really considered the question 'is this report actually serving the public interest?’”

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The story has repeatedly made its way to the front pages of the nation’s major newspapers since the story broke in late April.
A platform for anger

Beyond the direct consequences for the subjects of the reporting, the harsh media environment and harsher online debate have stirred up painful emotions for many victims of sexual abuse in Taiwan.

Many commenters went after Lin Yi-Han herself, with some questioning why sympathy is warranted for an adulteress. Others speculated as to her mental state. Others still focused their comments on her physical appearance.

Mean online comments are of course nothing new, but Jessie Yeh (葉大瑋), the executive secretary for Taiwan Media Watch, believes that media organizations have exacerbated their negative effects by providing them another platform and allowing the focus of national discourse to be shifted away from more salient issues. “Many victims will feel like it’s their fault. They might also feel more depressed because of these reports,” she says.

The negative media environment is especially disappointing given that a major theme of Lin Yi-han’s novel is the difficulty faced by many victims when talking openly about sexual trauma in Taiwanese society.

Lin Mei-hsun (林美薰), who heads Taipei-based women’s rights advocacy group the Modern Women’s Foundation, says this theme reflects the experience of many victims, and that she hopes the book will move the public to reflect on the plight of victims and cultural taboos surrounding sex.

“What kind of culture stops a victim from reporting this kind of thing? What kind of pressure stopped her from asking for help?” asks Lin.

“Lots of victims suffer from great trauma from society — from the victim-blaming culture and the negative criticism of victims. So I have to say, this young lady author is not the first victim who wanted to terminate her life. There are many victims that feel the same way, so we have to end the negative stigma applied to them and become more supportive,” she says.

Just what role Taiwan’s professional media could play in fostering more open public conversation is yet to be seen.

Misused media freedom?

In this year’s Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders ranked Taiwan as the top country in Asia in terms of press freedom. The report did find some threats to media freedom, but it largely focused on threats posed by the state, whether Taiwan’s or China’s.

“The media is indeed very free,” says Dr. Lin. “But an overly commercialized media environment often pushes news organizations to misuse their freedom in the pursuit of economic incentive.” He adds though, that introducing new government controls is not the right way to address the issue. Instead, he believes educating the audience could lead to greater media literacy. “If people understood the media and its role in society, oversight could come from the people,” he says.

But if media consumers need to improve their understanding, the media itself also needs to begin offering more worthy content. Yeh warns that if Taiwan’s professional media cannot adapt to offer more than just easily searchable forum postings, its future may be in jeopardy.

“The internet will continue to develop. The next generation will be even more capable with computers,” she says. “Can Taiwan’s media create a more professional role for itself? If it cannot, I feel like a day will come when the audience will just get rid of it.”

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Editor: Edward White

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