When criminal cases become a show and prosecutors manipulate the media, the human rights of the defendants are irreparably affected.
by Massimo Introvigne*
*A paper presented at the webinar “7/13: Dawn of Victory for Tai Ji Men,” co-organized by CESNUR and Human Rights Without Frontiers on July 13, 2022, 15th anniversary of the Taiwan Supreme Court decision declaring the Tai Ji Men defendants innocent of all charges.
Fifteen years ago, on July 13, 2007, the Supreme Court of Taiwan found the Tai Ji Men defendants innocent of all charges, including tax evasion. Although they eventually received national compensation for the previous unjust detention, the consequences of the past injustice continued to affect Tai Ji Men in two ways. The first was that the National Taxation Bureau refused to accept the verdict of the Supreme Court, and continued to issue ill-founded tax bills. The second, and the subject of this paper, is that media had slandered Tai Ji Men, greatly affecting its dizi (disciples) and creating widespread prejudices against them.
I live in Italy, a country that has been at the receiving end of criticism by the European Court of Human Rights about its so-called spectacularization of justice. In a series of decisions of the first decade of the 21st century, the European Court noted that in Italy prosecutors systematically supplied information about high-profile criminal cases to the media. Defendants were tried in the media, including television, well before being tried in court. The media, relying almost exclusively on information from the prosecutors, created in their audience the impression that the defendants were guilty. In some cases, the media might have influenced the subsequent decisions by judges or juries. Even if courts would later pronounce the defendants innocent, this would not be enough to restore their image in the eye of the public opinion. The violation of their human rights is thus irreparable.
Because of this situation, which has parallel elsewhere but was specially dangerous in Italy, Italian scholars have been particularly active in studying the contemporary spectacularization of criminal justice. One was Massimo Nobili (1945–2016), who in one of his books analyzed one of the most famous paintings celebrating criminal justice, “Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime” by French painter Pierre-Paul Prud’hon (1758–1823). The painting is now at the Louvre, but Prud’hon painted it in 1808 for the Court of Assizes of Paris, where criminal jury trials were held. It shows a criminal who has just committed a homicide pursued by an uncertain Justice (on the left), which is however turned towards the infallible Divine Vengeance that will surely find and punish the assassin.
Nobili believed that the two justices, human and divine, may also be interpreted secularly as the prosecutor and the judge, and the painting may have conveyed the Napoleonic ideology that granted to the prosecutor, who supposedly works on behalf of a divine truth, certain privileges with respect to the attorney for the defense. It is an ideology whose effects are still at work today. The painting also represents the criminal prosecution as a grandiose theatrical and even sacred show.
However, when the criminal prosecution is spectacularized, there is no way to protect the human rights of the defendants, particularly when modern media are at work. The European Court of Human Rights could only award monetary damages to the defendants, but these did not give back to them their reputation and peace of mind. The European judges also recommended that prosecutors who play dishonestly with the media be in turn prosecuted, something that is now at the center of heated debates in Italy.
The Tai Ji Men case was a spectacular case of spectacularization of justice. On December 19, 1996, Prosecutor Hou Kuan-Jen, nicknamed the “Rambo prosecutor,” raided 19 Tai Ji Men academies and private homes of dizi, telling the press this was a huge operation against fraud and tax evasion. Having arrested the Shifu (Grand Master) of Tai Ji Men, Dr. Hong Tao-Tze, his wife, and two dizi, Hou continued to play the media against them, slandering the defendants systematically and even spreading against Dr. Hong the ridiculous accusation that he was “raising goblins.”
In our webinars, several dizi have testified about the dramatic consequences of the slander campaign. Some were harassed in the workplace. Young dizi were bullied at school, and asked whether they were raising goblins. Families and friends broke with dizi who remained in a movement that media manipulated by the prosecutor had depicted as evil. Tai Ji Men’s Supreme Court victory of 2007 could not undo the damage done in 1996 and beyond.
There are three lessons we may learn from this incident. First, prosecutors are not infallible. They may be terribly wrong and even manipulative and dishonest, as demonstrated by the case of Prosecutor Hou. The media should abandon the idea, consecrated in Prud’hon’s famous and somewhat propagandistic painting, that they are instruments of a divine justice, and acknowledge that prosecutors are a party in the criminal action that should have no more right to be heard than the defense.
Second, laws should be passed and enforced to prevent prosecutors from leaking information about a pending criminal case to the media. While the media do have a right to inform their audiences about a pending case, the only way of protecting the defendants’ human rights is to limit the possibility for the prosecutors to divulge or leak information before the trial.
Third, where these laws exist they should be enforced, and prosecutors who illegally use the media as a tool of their prosecution should be punished. Manipulating the media was just one of the illegal activities Prosecutor Hou was guilty of in the Tai Ji Men case. But it was an important one, and it caused a large amount of unnecessary suffering for thousands of dizi. The fact that Prosecutor Hou was never prosecuted for his wrongdoings (in fact, he was even promoted) is a scandal within the larger scandal of the Tai Ji Men case. It raises doubts about Taiwan’s willingness to deal with systemic problems of corruption, and relics of its authoritarian and post-authoritarian past.