While Taiwan has always been proud of its press freedom and many people in Taiwan would even go as far as saying that Taiwanese media is “too free,” recent developments surrounding in the local media environment suggest otherwise.
This is why those who work in the media industry found Sunday — Journalists’ Day, the annual day that pays tribute to their profession — difficult to celebrate.
Along with the deteriorating working environment, diminishing profitability and erosion of professional ethics that can be found in countries all over the world, media in Taiwan is facing a unique challenge in the growing influence of China.
Some people in the industry are aware of this and are frustrated that they cannot do anything about it. Others remain unaware of this invisible power that has been eroding press freedom and jeopardizing journalistic integrity.
Look no further than Hong Kong, the former British colony whose sovereignty was handed over to China in 1997, and Macau, a former Portuguese colony, which followed suit two years later.
Members of the media from those places, now known as special administrative places of China, warned their Taiwanese counterparts at a forum held on Sunday in Taipei that things may not worsen overnight, but that slowly and surely they could reach a point of no return.
How Hong Kong’s press freedom has changed since 1997 is reflected in the non-profit group Reporters Without Borders rankings. In 2002, the territory was in 18th place, while this year it is 58th. Taiwan was 35th in 2002 and 47th this year.
Beijing has played a game of patience dealing with the media in Hong Kong. It started asserting its influence on media outlet owners as early as before the 1997 handover, said Sham Yee-lan (岑倚蘭), chairperson of the Hong Kong Journalists Association.
China incorporated Hong Kong media owners into its political system, made investments in the industry and used its administrative power over the territory as a tool for interference, enabling it to change the media industry’s structure, Sham said.
Over time, the mind-set of members of the media in Hong Kong changed and Beijing no longer needs to pay special attention to the industry because self-censorship has become the norm, she said.
Sham said self-censorship is a more serious concern than any direct interference from Beijing or the Hong Kong authority.
As Taiwanese media outlets remain relatively free from government interference, self-censorship might deserve as much — if not more — attention from local media organizations.
It has been an open secret that some Taiwanese media companies have Chinese investors, despite such ownership remaining illegal on paper. It is also evident that some media outlets have been silent on the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, Tibet, China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and the Falun Gong movement.
A recent incident may deserve attention.
Taiwan’s state-funded Central News Agency (CNA) published a story in error on Aug. 12 about the national basketball team’s protest against the organizer’s use of its title: “Chinese Taipei” in the FIBA Asia Men’s Basketball Championship in Manila, Philippines. What CNA’s editorial team originally intended is clear in the headline that CNA ended up posting: “Editor-in-chief instruction: do not publish.”
While people in Taiwan like making fun of Chinese news censorship, the nation needs to learn from the experiences of Hong Kong and Macau. This is the only chance Taiwan has to better prepare itself against a “point of no return.”