Taiwan press freedoms are eroding, critics say

For the past two years, Freedom House has downgraded Taiwan’s rating in its annual report on global press freedom. Critics say it's common for government propaganda to masquerade as 'news.'

Nicky Loh/Reuters
An Apple Daily, Tawian's largest newspaper is seen on the table in Taipei, Taiwan, on Nov. 29, 2010. It is reportedly the only newspaper that does not take embedded advertising from the government. Taiwan press freedoms are eroding.

When veteran journalist Huang Je-bing resigned in protest from one of Taiwan’s leading newspapers, he says he did not expect it would stir up such a storm. In a blistering blog post titled “Leaving the China Times on a Jet Plane,” Mr. Huang deplored the erosion of journalism ethics that sacrifices independent news for cozy relations with government officials – relations that are greased by a flow of advertising dollars.

“As a result, reporters have become advertising salesmen, public relations companies and advertisers have become news writers, and the hand of government and big business intervenes directly into editing content. This is an immoral masquerade,” Huang wrote, comparing the practice to Communist propaganda.

Freedom of speech and press are among the most lauded achievements of Taiwan’s democratic transition since martial law was lifted more than two decades ago. Yet many observers say that the glitter of the island republic’s free press has been overrated, especially in a highly commercialized news culture that is both deeply partisan and prey to political favors. For the past two years Freedom House has downgraded Taiwan’s rating in its annual report on global press freedom.

President Ma Ying-jeou promised to end the practice of embedded advertising by the government three years ago. But Huang and others say it has actually become more widespread. Independent observers say the news media is in a state of crisis over assaults to its independence from government and the corporate sector.

“In general, we’ve made progress in human rights,” says lawyer and former political prisoner Yao Chia-wen, who is a senior adviser to the opposition Democratic Progressive Party. But recently, Yao says, freedom of the press is one of the civic rights that are eroding.

Beyond propaganda as news

The placement of advertising as news is only the “tip of the iceberg,” says a report by Taiwan Media Watch, an independent group that monitors press freedom and journalism practices. Media Watch chairman Guang Chung-hsiang worries that, after two decades of democracy, the government’s “soft control” of the news media has replaced the direct control of the martial law era, although criticism of government has hardly abated.

So Huang’s protest struck a nerve. It caused waves of hand wringing in a society that is distrustful toward government and sensitized to the politics of nearly everything. Huang was reassured by the response. “So many colleagues have rallied to support me, and many journalism professors, too,” he told the Monitor two weeks after his resignation in mid December. One example of that support was a petition signed by more than 130 journalism and communications teachers from dozens of universities calling on the government to restore integrity and end the practice of “buying news” through “advertorials” or advertising copy disguised as news reports.

Taiwan’s premier, Wu Dun-yi, said on Dec. 29 that he would “reflect deeply” on the government’s failure to end this practice. He and other senior leaders acknowledged that their public relations methods were “wrong” and legislators said they were considering statutory prohibitions as a remedy.

The politics of regulation

Still there's concern over the politicization of licensing by the National Communications Commission, which regulates the air waves.

Recently, Jimmy Lai, the Hong Kong media mogul who owns Taiwan’s largest newspaper, the Apple Daily, has complained that his company, Next Media, has been waiting for over a year for a license to operate a cable television network on the island. In a recent commentary for the Wall Street Journal, Lai blasted the government for the delay and for tightening control on Taiwan’s press.

One example of creeping government influence is the media's minimization of criticism of government policies and exaggeration of its achievements, says Guang, who teaches journalism at National Chung Cheng University. Examples include millions of tax dollars spent on "advertising" to promote an extravagant project, Taipei’s international floral exhibition, now attracting tens of thousands of tourists daily. More consequential was the historic Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), signed with Beijing last summer. The agreement received much positive publicity from a compliant news media as part of a political marketing campaign to inflate the promised benefits from China and belittle any critics.

“Taiwan’s news media are not yet independent,” says Guang. “Can the public really accept this?”

Self-censorship on China

That question is especially serious amid the backdrop of the changing ties with China. As the Nationalist-led government reconciles with China in closed-door talks and multiple agreements that have opened up commerce, investment, and transportation across the Taiwan Strait, it's the manipulation of China-related news and deals like the ECFA that he says most worry the public.

“In the past, criticizing China was not something we avoided,” Yao said. “Now there are many things that can’t be said. So many Chinese delegations and VIPs are arriving, so many agreements have been signed, and certain topics are no longer discussed.”

Nearly all the Taiwanese media practice self-censorship in reporting about China, agrees Chuang Feng-chia, senior editor at the independent website newtalk.tw and a past president of the Association of Taiwan Journalists.

Meanwhile, former China Times reporter Huang is hopeful that the revulsion he ignited over “buying” positive news coverage will stiffen the resolve of news professionals and the government to clean up their act. “I hope that in the future this will reform our media culture and end this practice,” he said.

Sam Lang contributed to this report.

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