Word on Wednesday that Taiwan had jumped six notches to 45th place in Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) 15th annual World Press Freedom Index was a refreshing bit of good news, even if the rest of the index made for very dispiriting reading.
This year’s index painted a map of a darkening world. With journalism under threat from the erosion of democracy and attacks on the media becoming ever more commonplace, RSF warned that the industry was nearing a tipping point.
It is extremely worrying that even long-established democracies have become problematic for journalists. While Taiwan moved up, the US and the UK both fell two notches this year, the US to 43rd place and the UK to 40th.
Among the reasons for the US’ fall in the rankings, RSF mentioned US President Donald Trump calling the press an “enemy of the American people,” his White House trying to keep out several media outlets after critical reporting, and arrests of journalists who were covering protests.
However, the organization also noted that former US president Barack Obama’s administration had not done enough to protect the press, prosecuting more whistle-blowers than any preceding government.
Britain was criticized for passage of the Investigatory Powers Act and the Law Commission’s call for a new espionage act that would make it easier to prosecute journalists as spies for obtaining leaked information — all in the name of national security.
Given the progress that Taiwan has made, it is not difficult to imagine the nation leapfrogging ahead of the US and UK in next year’s index. With memories of the repression and persecution of the Martial Law era still fresh in many people’s minds, press freedom is something most Taiwanese know not to take for granted.
Many police officers appear still to have to learn to respect freedom of the press, but hopefully, under the Democratic Progressive Party’s administration, they will be encouraged to do so.
Then-president Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government was often too willing to replicate the errors of its autocratic predecessors. This was evident when police arrested three journalists who followed protesters when they entered the Ministry of Education during demonstrations in July 2015, or when officers roughed up journalists who were trying to do their jobs covering the June 2014 visit of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office Director Zhang Zijun (張志軍), to name but two examples.
However, RSF notes that the biggest threat to Taiwan’s media freedom comes from across the Taiwan Strait, as Beijing uses economic and political pressure to promote its propaganda. Unfortunately, it has found willing partners in Taiwan who are eager to parrot the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) nationalist claims about ethnic kinship, the economic benefits and necessity of closer ties, or the need for outright absorption.
Anyone watching what has happened in Hong Kong over the past few years knows such claims are utterly hollow. Hong Kong fell four spots to 73 in this year’s index. Elsewhere in the region, the index showed a mixed outlook. While South Korea moved up seven places to 63, Japan stayed in 70th place for a second year, with RSF saying that media freedom has been in decline since Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was re-elected five years ago.
Indonesia (124), the Philippines (127), Malaysia (144), Singapore (151) and Laos (170) all made gains, while Mongolia (69), Cambodia (132) and Thailand (142) fell, and Vietnam (175) and China (176) retained last year’s rankings. At the bottom of the heap, North Korea swapped places with Etrirea to come in last.
Taiwanese can be justly proud of the advances this nation has made and the freedoms it has won. However, the World Press Freedom index is a yearly reminder of just how fragile those gains can be.
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