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China’s heavy hand threatens media in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao
Taiwan News, Staff Writer
2014-02-18 02:03 PM
Taiwan’s ranking in Reporters without Borders’ (RSF) annual Press Freedom Index slipped again last year. In the 2014 Report on Global Press Freedom released by RSF last week, Taiwan dropped from 47 to 50. The report notes that China is using its growing economic prowess to chip away at media independence in Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan, a reminder to Taiwan that it must be constantly aware of the threat China presents to freedoms on the island.

The RSF report identifies methods China uses to control the media in the Greater China region, including heightened monitoring of the Internet among Chinese users and restrictions on foreign media operating within its borders. In Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao, changes are already apparent in the degree of freedom enjoyed by the press, with media independence in all three areas facing increasing pressure. China is flexing its burgeoning economic muscles to tighten its influence over its Special Administrative Regions as well as territories claimed by Beijing – namely, Taiwan.

RSF cites the acquisition of the China Times Group in Taiwan by the pro-Beijing Want Want Group as a threat to freedom of the press in Taiwan. It also notes that Beijing has positioned liaison offices in Hong Kong and Macau to put pressure on local media, stifle media pluralism and impose other limits on press freedom.

The report lifts a line from George Orwell’s 1984 to describe China’s totalitarian treatment of its domestic press: "Big Brother is watching." On taking office last year, President Xi Jinping issued a thinly-veiled warning that Chinese media must show the world the ‘real situation’ in China. The result is that more journalists, bloggers and Internet dissidents than ever are being arrested or repressed for speaking their opinions.

The RSF report also notes that freedom of the press in Taiwan has suffered since President Ma Ying-jeou took office in 2008. Pressure on the media has been obvious in events like former ARATS chairman Chen Yunlin’s two trips to Taiwan to meet SEF Chairman Chiang Pin-kung. The Ma administration’s attempts to restrict access and reporting by the press on Chen’s visits caused Taiwan’s ranking in RSF’s Press Freedom Index for that year to plunge from 36 to 59. Commenting on the abrupt fall, RSF panned the administration’s excuse for restrictions on the media – that it was concerned journalists might be injured in violent demonstrations.

Just last week China’s refusal to grant visa interviews to two reporters from Taiwan for the Wang-Zhang Talks in Nanjing went entirely unchallenged by the Ma government, which dares not show the slightest concern over Chinese interference or react to affronts to press freedom on the island. RSF repeats what others have said: under the administration of President Ma, the nation’s media are already on the treacherous slippery slope of "Hong Kong-ization."

In Taiwan, China's expanding influence and the Ma government’s indifference mean media outlets must take action to defend themselves. Pressure in the Legislative Yuan has brought some progress, like a ban on product placement – the insertion of pro-China articles under the guise of news reports – but the government has largely ignored other means China uses to influence Taiwan’s media. Already many media outlets report only items that present positive images of China, falling into line with the self-censorship widely practiced in Chinese media. China controls its media with an iron fist and asymmetrical standards that can be applied at any time, and it can hardly be expected to look for anything less from media in Taiwan.

RSF’s report has not gone unchallenged in Taiwan. One newspaper article features journalism professors, ruling party legislators and media observers criticizing RSF’s take on Taiwan media. One commenter panned the report, claiming it unfairly singled out the China Times and said the newspaper has worked against media freedom in Taiwan since it was bought by what RSF termed the "pro-Beijing" Want Want Group. Note that the quotation marks here were added not by RSF, but by the medium in which the rebuttal appeared — the Want China Times, which is owned by the China Times.

In the Want China Times piece, one university professor claimed RSF’s rankings were illogical and the organization had a predetermined agenda. The professor said every media outlet is entitled to its own political stance, whether pro-China or pro-independence; this is the basic premise of press freedom. A single media outlet's stance is not indicative of the overall situation in Taiwan, he noted.

No one disputes the right of the China Times or Want China Times to print all the news it sees fit. What media activists and others are protesting is the cloaking of propaganda in the guise of news – either as advertorials posing as legitimate news items, or embedded items that hide in sections innocuously titled “Supplement” or “Special Section,” citing only vague sources if sources are credited at all.

Groups like RSF and Freedom House are watching media worldwide, and Taiwan has its share of groups monitoring domestic media – organizations like the Alliance for Taiwan Journalists, Taiwan Media Watch and the Foundation to Advance Media Excellence. There have also been movements among Taiwan’s younger generation like the Youth Alliance against Media Monsters. These groups and others are working to preserve freedom of the press and other hard-won rights enjoyed by the people of Taiwan.

DPP legislator Yeh Yi-chin warns against people like Tsai Eng-meng and his China Times Group: “I believe Tsai is a frontman for the Chinese government.” He adds that the battle for Taiwan’s media is only part of a larger struggle. “I hope that people in Taiwan and the world look seriously at the rise of China in the context of democratic values, not just economic ones.”

National Taiwan University journalism lecturer Chang Chin-hua adds, “China is trying to propagate a united front in Taiwan by promoting the Taiwan-China relationship while downplaying their human rights problems and lack of freedoms.

“This cannot be tolerated,” she notes. “It goes against professionalism and journalism ethics. It cheats the readers, who don’t know what to believe. It destroys the very function of news and readership trust. And it’s also a national security problem.”

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