Fri, May 05, 2017 - Page 8 News List

EDITORIAL: Press freedom concerns exist

Taiwan has been given several doses of confidence in international rankings about its level of freedom. The improved performance might have allowed the people and leaders of the nation to celebrate World Press Freedom Day on Wednesday, but has the nation really become freer?

On July 15, the country is to mark the 30th anniversary of the lifting of martial law, which lasted from May 1949 to July 1987 and is, thus far, the longest period of martial law the world has seen.

During that dark period, thousands of Taiwanese were jailed, tortured, made to disappear or executed for saying or printing things that displeased dictator Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and later his son. People that escaped state violence understandably remained silent out of fear for their personal safety.

Taiwan’s civic and political freedom has surged since the end of martial law, the subsequent lifting of newspaper limitations in 1988 and the 1992 revision of Article 100 of the Criminal Code, which originally provided the legal basis for the then-Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government to restrict freedom of expression.

There has been an avalanche of news outlets and political talk shows critical of the government. Reports compiled by international watchdogs have also taken an optimistic view on the development of the nation’s democracy and human rights.

In February, news about Taiwan outperforming several of its Western and Asian partners, such as the US, France and South Korea, in Washington-based Freedom House’s latest Freedom in the World report made front pages. Taipei also saw a rise in its overall score from 89 out of 100 last year to 91 this year.

Last month, Reporters Without Borders announced its choice of Taipei over Hong Kong for its first office in Asia, citing concerns about Chinese threats to the territory’s press freedom

A few weeks later, the Paris-based media watchdog published its World Press Freedom Index, which moved Taiwan’s ranking up six places to 45 out of 180 nations, making it home to the freest media environment in Asia.

The outlook seems optimistic if only the most recent international ratings are considered. It might be less bright looking further back or at the bigger picture.

In April 2008, just a month before former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) was inaugurated, Taiwan jumped to its highest ranking in Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press report since 2004, at 32nd.

However, Ma’s China-centric policy significantly increased Taiwan’s economic dependence on China, prompting many media outlets that lacked sufficient financial backing to self-censor and tone down criticism of Beijing to attract advertisements.

China-friendly Taiwanese businesspeople’s increasing control of news media has sped up a worrying trend in the nation’s media freedom.

As a result, Taiwan’s media freedom rating in the 2009 Freedom House report plunged to 43rd, and it was ranked 47th and 48th for years until it climbed back up to the 44th position last year and to 39th this year.

Several high-profile figures have voiced concern about self-censorship, including then-Freedom House president Mark Lagon in February last year, in an interview with the Taipei Times and its sister paper, the Chinese-language Liberty Times.

Unfortunately, the problem is still there and might get worse as the Chinese government carries on with its carrot-and-stick approach to Taiwanese corporations, businesspeople and media outlets, and as it becomes increasingly hard for news publications to stay afloat.

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