Activists rally outside parliament in support of students occupying the building to protest a trade pact with China in Taipei on March 21, 2014. (AFP/Mandy Cheng)
Activists rally outside parliament in support of students occupying the building to protest a trade pact with China in Taipei on March 21, 2014. (AFP/Mandy Cheng)

Taiwan journalists feel pressure as elections approach

Political tensions are rising in Taiwan ahead of local and municipal elections due at the end of November. The vote is expected to test the popularity of the ruling Kuomintang Party (KMT), which advocates greater integration with China and which earlier this year sparked protests when it tried to pass a new economic cooperation deal with the mainland. The vote also comes as the Taiwanese are closely watching how Beijing responds to pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

The run-up to the election may be a barometer for whether pressure on the island’s media–traditionally among the freest in Asia–will continue to build. On a visit to Taipei in April, journalists told CPJ that some in their ranks were attacked while covering the protests, known as the “sunflower movement,” and that they feel pushed by their news outlets to take sides in the dispute. These challenges come on top of the fact that many media owners in Taiwan have businesses on the mainland, resulting in pressure on journalists not to anger Beijing with critical news reports, CPJ research shows.

“Taiwan journalists are not getting attacked yet, but we are worried we will end up like Hong Kong,” said Chen Hsin-tsung, producer and host of the “News Talk” program on Taiwan’s Public Television Service (PTS), the first independent broadcaster in Taiwan. “We’ve already seen incidents of police pushing reporters and blocking them from protest sites in Taipei, showing a troubling lack of regard to our right to gather news.”

From March to April this year, students and civic groups’ unprecedented occupation of Taiwan’s legislature suspended the passing of the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement signed by Taipei and Beijing. The protesters who started what is known as the “sunflower movement” feared that the pact, which would increase economic cooperation in service industries such as banking, publishing, and telecommunications, would erode Taiwan’s independence. Some academics and journalists expressed worry that the treaty would erode the media’s ability to withstand commercial pressure to censor information about the mainland.

The Association of Taiwan Journalists said they recorded at least 10 cases of police roughing up reporters when they forcefully evicted protesters and members of the media from the Executive Yuan. “Reporters were dragged away and cameramen were hit and blocked from taking pictures even when they told police they were journalists,” said Association of Taiwan Journalists chairwoman Chen Hsiao-yi.

“In the past journalists could report wherever we wanted as long as we had a press pass,” Loa Iok-sin, a senior reporter at Taipei Times, a pro-independence English- language newspaper, told CPJ. “Now my colleagues face violence. Police have threatened me twice in the past year by saying I’d be charged with obstructing police duty if I refused to leave,” he said.

Journalists told CPJ they felt pressure to take sides by emphasizing either the protesters’ perspective or that of President Ma Ying-jeou’s government. This isn’t new, since media outlets in Taiwan have long been divided along clear political lines. Some are in open support of the Kuomintang, while others back the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which is staunchly pro-independence.

“The concentration of media control in the hands of owners who are either blue (pro-Kuomintang) or green (pro-DPP) means reporters who’d prefer to be neutral need to choose which side to work for. This can be demoralizing because media on both sides pressure reporters to give prominence to some issues and to downplay other issues and events such as anti-government protests,” said a reporter for a “blue camp” Chinese-language newspaper who requested anonymity because of concerns over job security. Local journalists indicated to CPJ there are a few neutral media outlets in Taiwan, with possible exceptions including the Commonwealth magazine group and some online outlets such as the recently founded Storm Media Group. The mass market Chinese-language tabloid Apple Daily is critical of both parties and especially of Beijing.

Taiwan has laws dating from 2003 that ban the government and political parties from involvement in privately-owned radio and TV stations, and the independent National Communications Commission was established in 2006 to promote fair competition and standards in the communications and information industry. Laws to protect press freedom include regulations that bar China from investing in the local press. But many of Taiwan’s media companies are owned by pro-establishment tycoons, and the regulations against mainland influence are deemed ineffective by many journalists and media experts.

Steven Kan, a retired economics professor formerly of Taiwan’s National Tsing Hua University, told CPJ that increased economic integration between China and Taiwan is bound to have a negative impact on press freedom. “There is no way to avoid China’s market influence and it does not matter which party is head of government. China has powerful supporters among tycoons who own the majority of Taiwan’s media and their money means that laws restricting China’s influence in Taiwan media are meaningless,” he said.

Media owners can be fined for accepting ads from Beijing, but the risk is dwarfed by the potential financial rewards of expansion to the much larger market on the mainland, journalists say. Taiwan’s media industry has been contracting for years. “It is understandable why our media is looking to China but democracy and freedom of speech are assets that should be cherished,” said Chen-Ling Hung, Associate Professor at the Graduate Institute of Journalism in National Taiwan University. “Instead, outspoken columnists and talk show hosts are being fired as television companies are changing their content to fit the Chinese market’s needs.”

In one example, TV production company SET (Sanli) cancelled its popular news program, “Big Talk News” (Dahua Xinwen) in 2012, after a senior producer indicated that the show had come under pressure from Ma’s government. Two senior producers told media scholar Hsu Chien-jung that “Big Talk News” was troublesome for SET because it wanted to produce television dramas for the Chinese market.

Some Taiwanese journalists told CPJ they were worried that the worsening environment would eventually lead to the types of more serious problems that Hong Kong journalists are facing. This year, Kevin Lau, a former chief editor of Ming Pao newspaper known for his investigative reporting, was slashed with a knife three times in the back and legs by suspected hired assailants, leaving him in critical condition. During the ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, an estimated two dozen journalists have been beaten by police or pro-government supporters, according to research from the Hong Kong Journalists Association and news reports. Analysts and protesters told the Guardian that the movement’s demand for more representative democracy stems from residents’ creeping anxiety about the erosion of freedoms in the semi-autonomous territory, including press freedom.

In Taiwan in the 2000s, the practice of government agencies taking out “paid news” in media outlets became a top source of advertising revenue. “We used to get paid to interview government officials and we worked a lot with the government to promote their latest policies,” said a reporter for an English-language publication, who also requested anonymity because of concerns over job security. This practice came to public attention when veteran China Times reporter Dennis Huang resigned in protest. His message led to a public campaign and legal amendment prohibiting Taiwanese government agencies from using public funds for “paid news.” But journalists told CPJ that although media organizations are legally obliged to label paid content as advertisements, some don’t comply, especially when it comes to paid news from private companies.

A local NGO, the Foundation for the Prevent of Public Damage by the Media, examined news content of Taiwan’s five largest newspapers in 2012 and found that three of them, China Times, United Daily News and the United Evening News, carried stories that can be seen as “advertisements of the Chinese government…[and] local governments.” The report’s survey found that the three newspapers carried a combined total of 96 news stories that were “in effect advertisements”, as discussed in a recent report by Japan’s NHK Broadcasting Culture Research Institute.

Meanwhile, the government maintains ownership of public media networks. A journalist at Taiwan’s Central News Agency, the official state news agency, which is 50 percent owned by the Taiwanese government, said interference comes from the local government no matter which party is in power. “We are expected to cover government policies and the government’s perspective in a mostly positive manner and while our coverage of oppositional views aren’t necessarily negative, things such as anti-government protests or statements from DPP politicians might not be covered with a lot of detail in our reports,” she told CPJ, requesting anonymity because of job security concerns.

Local journalists and foreign correspondents also say that government transparency is a mounting concern. Martin Williams, president of the Taiwan Foreign Correspondents’ Club from March 2012 to April 2014, told CPJ: “We have been increasingly getting anecdotal information and expressions of concern from members that they felt that the environment is starting to close in a bit, and it is becoming harder to get access to people they used to have access to, such as government officials and spokespersons being less candid and willing to answer questions that they might answer before. Journalists of considerable seniority at well-known international publications struggle to talk with senior government officials.”

Journalists also cited the ongoing problem of Taiwanese reporters from outlets critical of China being denied visas to work on the mainland. This year, reporters from Apple Daily and Radio Free Asia were denied visas to cover a Taiwanese minister’s four-day visit to China without any explanation from Beijing, according to news reports.

Chen Yi-shan, deputy managing editor of Commonwealth magazine, said there is also growing concern that Chinese officials increasingly “have a direct window” to Taiwan’s media. “Journalists have heard from each other in the past year that Chinese government officials are calling editorial desks in Taiwan to complain about critical coverage. While this may happen as well to other news organizations in the world that cover China, in Taiwan, pressure from officials could have more sway over Taiwanese media owners who want to protect their extensive business interests in China,” said Chen.

“The future is pretty bleak,” said Liu Rui-Hua, head of the Economics Department in National Tsing Hau University. “International scrutiny would help but the U.S. largely chooses to ignore Taiwan because they are also interested in doing business with China, while Taiwanese media owners only care about money and political clout. The majority of journalists, meanwhile, think of their work as just a way to get a salary and with the shrinking media industry they are working wherever they can have a job.”

Veteran broadcast journalist and media studies lecturer Lydia Ku sounded a slightly more optimistic note. “Taiwanese journalists feel they do not have the power to challenge media owners’ business interests,” she said. “But I think it’s not so bad yet. I believe it is possible to push the government to build a better regulatory system to prevent Chinese influence from controlling the news.”

The November municipal elections in Taiwan are only a small test ahead of the general elections due in 2016, which may bring even more pressure on the media. And the party that wins that election will determine whether the Taiwanese political system remains amenable to protecting press freedom.

UPDATE: The fifth paragraph of this post has been corrected to reflect that police evicted protesters and journalists from Taiwan’s Executive Yuan, not its legislature as previously stated.