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Taiwan: Corporate Lawsuit Threatens Academic Freedom

Dr. Ben-Jei Tsuang, a professor at the Department of Environmental Engineering in National Chun Hsing University [zh], is the latest victim of a defamation lawsuit brought on by a big corporation, the Formosa Plastic Group.

Increasingly, big corporations in Taiwan are using defamation lawsuits to silence activists and scholars. In fact, many legal experts suggest that the current criminal defamation law is in violation [zh] of international covenants.

Dr. Tsuang worked with a research team to evaluate the environmental impact of 66 factories in Taichung and Yunlin. His team found that heavy metals and dioxins were being released in to the air, close to the Formosa Plastic Group (FPG)'s Six Naphtha Cracking plant. Dr. Tsuang presented his findings at several expert conferences held by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA.)

In response, two affiliates of FPG, Formosa Chemicals & Fiber Corporation and Mailiao Power Corporation, filed criminal charges at the Taipei District Prosecutor's office in early April, 2012, seeking NT$40 million (about USD1.33 million) in damages for defamation [zh, pdf].

Dr. Tsuang explained the environmental impact of the petrochemical industry.

Dr. Tsuang explains the environmental impact of the petrochemical industry at an anti-Kuokuang petrochemical project protest. Photo by Gea-choas, used with permission.

Dr. Tsuang's findings are critical for several civil groups who have been advocating to stop the Kuokuang petrochemical project. In fact, these groups already won the battle, as later FPG failed to persuade any local government in Taiwan to approve their petrochemical project and decided that the project be moved out of Taiwan and relocated to Malaysia in May 2012.

With this in mind, Shih-Wei Lu, a lawyer who is assisting Dr. Tusang's defense team pointed out [zh] that the lawsuit is a ‘strategic lawsuit against public participation‘, in other words it is intended to censor, intimidate, and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism or opposition.

Many scholars and civic groups are demanding the FPG to drop the case. A joint letter by several civil groups states [zh]:

民間團體要感謝包括莊秉潔教授等多位學者,以各自不同領域的專業,不斷揭發六輕汙染環境、影響民眾健康的科學研究。

We, a coalition of civil groups, would like to thank these researchers, including Dr. Ben-Jei Tsuang. With their diverse expertise, their researches have revealed how FPG’s Six Naphtha Cracking plant has polluted the environment and affected citizens’ health.

汙染者應負舉證責任,六輕應公開所有汙染物排放資訊…若無法證明其創辦人王永慶先生所說六輕「空氣清新、景色宜人」,應儘速撤告,勿漠視此事將使你們的企業形象雪上加霜,惡化社會對你們的觀感和評價。

The polluter should prove their innocence by providing data to the public. FPG’s Six Naphtha Cracking plant should give the public information of its pollutants emitted into the environment…If FPG cannot provide the evidence that “the air is clean and the scenery is beautiful” around the plants as depicted by its founder Yung-Ching Wang, FPG should drop this lawsuit. Ignoring our suggestions will worsen your corporate image and the society's impression and evaluation of your company.

Dr. Ming-Yi Wu from National Tsing-Hua University also wrote an article [zh] to support Dr. Tsuang:

FPG's six naphtha plant is considered as a serious pollution source.

FPG's Six Naphtha Plant is considered a serious pollution source. Photo by Changhua Coast Conservation Action. Used with Permission.

台塑大可尋求學界 支援,以學術挑戰學術…但台塑以官司取代研究,加以巨額求償…台塑這場控告,證明了對抗粗野的、惡質的企業是有價值的,那就是價值四千萬的勇氣。

FPG can ask other researchers to conduct another research and challenge the existing findings. They can turn it into an academic debate…Nevertheless, FPG prefers lawsuits and a large amount of pecuniary compensation instead of research…This FPG lawsuit shows us that our courage to confront a boorish, low-quality corporation is worth 40 million NT dollars.

Even though the Taipei District Prosecutor's Office pointed out that academic freedom is protected by Taiwan's constitution and decided to drop the charge in June 6, 2012, FPG applied to the High Court for an appeal.

Meanwhile, Dr. Tsuang is still facing the civil charge while the judge asked FPG to prepare more evidence for the next court session on September 20, 2012. To show their support and share information about the court case, Dr. Tsuang's students created a Facebook page [zh]:

老師認真於研究,
總是獨自埋頭苦幹,
努力發揮所長為臺灣環境品質作嚴格把關,
這次無故捲入與台塑訴訟的風波中,
深深為老師抱不平,
系上需要這樣盡心盡力的教授,
而社會也需要這樣不畏懼強權的人來帶領我們,
我們中興環工的學生希望可以集結社會大眾的力量,
一起為莊秉潔老師聲援!

Our teacher is very serious about his research. He works very hard and independently  to monitor the quality of Taiwan's environment. We feel that it is totally unjust for him to be prosecuted by FPG without any good reason. Our department needs responsible professors like him and our society needs fearless leaders like him. Students from the Department of Environmental Engineering in National Chun Hsing University will stand by Dr. Ben-Jei Tsuang's side and (work towards) consolidating public support.

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