Is Taiwan’s media independence under threat?

As business relations develop between China and Taiwan, concerns are growing that Taiwan’s media freedom may be compromised. The culprits include some journalists themselves, promoting China to preserve their own business interests, and Taiwan’s Kuomintang (KMT) government, apparently attempting to exert control over the media through legislation.  

“Many newspapers have business interests in China,” veteran Taiwanese columnist Antonio Chiang told CPJ by telephone from his office in Taiwan. “A lot of advertisements are coming from China and the media needs to keep a good relationship going. It does have the effect of eroding press freedom, a bit like in Hong Kong before the handover.” Critics panned the China Times Group’s Want Daily newspaper for failing to mention the Tiananmen Square crackdown on student-led protests in Beijing, 1989, in a historical review article published in June 2010, according to the Taipei Times.

Worse than this, many Taiwanese journalists say advertising disguised as news coverage has become the norm. Government officials use this method to plug their own projects, according to the Christian Science Monitor. Taiwanese reporters allege that some pro-China stories were also paid for, according to China-based media blog Danwei.

Against the backdrop of these concerns comes news that Taiwan’s legislature is considering amendments to the Children and Youth Welfare Act that could interfere with their reporting freedom. An NGO called the Child Welfare League Foundation is supporting the amendments, which are designed to protect minors by forbidding media outlets from “describing or illustrating” illegal actions, violence, or erotica, local news reports say. Violators could be fined up to NT$500,000 (US$17,200) if the amendment is passed following its second reading in February, according to local news reports.

Many journalists have protested that the amendments amount to imprecise and unnecessary restrictions on their rights to publish. “So vague is the wording, it has the potential to impact the reporting of every crime, every accident–not to mention every embarrassing misadventure by a Taiwanese politician,” wrote Jimmy Lai, owner of the Next Media company, in the Wall Street Journal.

Some Taiwanese journalists concede there is a need for self-regulation. The Taipei Times points to a notorious 2007 instance when multiple newspapers published graphic images of a severed zoo veterinarian’s arm in crocodile’s mouth. But they are concerned that the government’s intervention is weakening press freedom. Their dissent isn’t organized along partisan political lines. “Every major newspaper across the political spectrum in Taiwan has come out against the amendment,” writes Taiwanese blog, Shu Flies. “When the United Daily, the Liberty Times, and the Apple Daily, among others, all agree on an issue, you know something is up.”