Tsai Ing-wen, center, declares victory in the presidential election in Taipei on January 16, 2016. (AP/Wally Santana)
Tsai Ing-wen, center, declares victory in the presidential election in Taipei on January 16, 2016. (AP/Wally Santana)

We’re live from Taipei! Please don’t tell China’s censors

Typically, news organizations like to promote original reporting. When an outlet covers a breaking news event at the time and from the place where the event is happening, they want their audience to know. However, for Chinese commercial media that covered this weekend’s presidential election in Taiwan, this was apparently not the case.

Several mainland Chinese news websites, including Phoenix, Sina, and Sohu, sent reporters to Taiwan to cover the election, but reporters told CPJ that their organizations ordered them to keep mum about it.

“The [Chinese] Cyberspace Administration has repeatedly ordered all online media outlets not to send reporters to Taiwan, but we did it anyway,” said one of the reporters who went to Taiwan and who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal. “It also prohibited us from doing live coverage on our website, so as a way to go around this censorship directive, we reported live by constantly updating the homepage of our mobile app.”

Caixin, a Beijing-based business magazine, did not shy away from publicizing that its reporting was done from Taipei, the capital of Taiwan. But when contacted by CPJ, the Caixin reporter who wrote the article said he was ordered not to give interviews.

The deteriorating media environment in China in recent years makes it unsurprising that the restrictions imposed during the latest election were severe–and Taiwanese politics have always been a sensitive topic for the Chinese news media. But the coverage of this year’s election appears to have met stricter limits, perhaps because the leader of the independence-leaning party the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Tsai Ing-wen, was the more popular candidate and eventually won the election. The DPP also handed the pro-Beijing party, the Kuomintang, an unprecedented defeat in the legislature.

“The positions and policies of the DPP as well as other pro-independence parties in Taiwan have always been under the Chinese government’s more stringent censorship than the Kuomintang and other pro-Beijing entities,” said Jia Jia, a Beijing-based freelance journalist and former editor of Tencent’s online magazine Dajia.

During the 2012 presidential election in which the Kuomintang candidate, Ma Ying-jeou, won, major online media portals including Tencent, Sohu, Sina, and Netease all did “special subject coverage” with lively graphs and maps. The commercial online media’s coverage of the latest election is scant by comparison, with most of the content being reposts of articles from state media.

But a reporter for a news website pointed out to CPJ that articles could be “hidden.”

“We posted some of our own election-related articles on our website but did not let them appear on the home page, so unless you look for them, you won’t see them,” the reporter said. “We did that because the Cyberspace Administration only allowed one piece of Taiwan election-related news each website could publish under its home page’s ‘important news’ (yaowen) section and it has to be a repost of an article from Xinhua, [the state news agency].”

Print media also faced tight restrictions. In 2012, the Southern Metropolis, a liberal-leaning daily based in Guangdong province, covered Ma’s election victory on its front page. This year, on January 17, a day after the election, the paper merely reprinted four articles from Xinhua in its “important news” section. “These days, don’t even think about doing your own reporting on Taiwan politics,” said a reporter for Southern Metropolis who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal. “We used to have reporters stationed in Taiwan several years ago. They have all been withdrawn. In early 2015, our paper sent a reporter to Taiwan to cover the TransAsia plane crash, but we no longer send reporters to cover politics.”

On January 16, while broadcasting a segment of Tsai’s victory press conference, the Fujian province-based television network Southeast Television blurred out the Taiwan flag and the words “president,” “vice-president,” “members of the legislature,” and “international” on the billboard behind Tsai. News website Sina also censored a pin of the Taiwan flag worn by Kuomintang candidate Eric Chu on his way to the voting station. To the Chinese audience, the flag and words symbolize the independence of Taiwan, which the Chinese government resolutely opposes.

“This is also one of the difficult situations with which the Chinese news media have to deal when covering the Taiwan election. The photos are usually full of ‘sensitive spots’ you can’t use–there are either a lot of Taiwan flags or signs held by voters demanding independence,” said one independent media consultant who covered the election on his own public account on WeChat, a popular social networking app, and who also asked not to be identified.

Jia, who was also in Taiwan observing the election, said he is not planning to publish his articles on the Chinese domestic media because “the things I wanted to write is beyond what is acceptable by the Chinese media.” Jia is preparing to publish the articles on his new WeChat public account. WeChat closed his previous account in August after he published a piece of critical commentary on the Tianjin chemical warehouse explosion that killed over 100 people.

On the morning of January 18, the above-mentioned media consultant sent CPJ a WeChat message saying that he had just found out that his WeChat public account, which had about 5000 subscribers, had been permanently closed. Asked how he felt about being censored, the consultant replied: “Death is inevitable. Being alive is an accident.”