Freedom House lowers Taiwan’s press ranking

LESS FREE::The nation has fallen five places in the world rankings since 2008 and DPP legislators were quick to link the decline with President Ma Ying-jeou’s taking office

By William Lowther, Shih Hsiu-chuan and Vincent Y. Chao  /  Staff Reporters in WASHINGTON and TAIPEI

Wed, May 04, 2011 - Page 1

Taiwan continued to drop down the list of countries with a free press, a new global study on press freedom shows.

In a survey released on Monday by the Washington-based think tank Freedom House, Taiwan ranked 48th in the world in press freedom last year. It ranked 47th in 2009 and 43rd in 2008.

The nation scored a total of 24 negative points compared with 23 in 2009 and 20 in each of the previous three years.

On a sliding scale, the fewer points a country scores, the freer its press is judged to be in the Freedom of the Press 2011 report.

In the Asia-Pacific region, Taiwan now ranks seventh, behind Palau, New Zealand, the Marshall Islands, Australia, Japan and Micronesia. As recently as 2007, it was ranked fourth in the region.

“Some journalists [in Taiwan] voiced fears that press freedom was backsliding in 2010,” the report said.

“A growing trend of marketing disguised as news reports, a proposed legal amendment that would limit descriptions of crime and violence in the media, and licensing obstacles all contributed to these concerns,” it said.

China could be playing a role in Taiwan’s decline, the report said.

“As commercial ties between Taiwan and mainland China deepened in 2010 with the signing of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, press freedom advocates raised concerns that media owners and some journalists were whitewashing news about China to protect their own financial interests,” it said.

“Critics perceived Beijing’s influence in a column that ran on June 4 in the Want Daily newspaper. The column, which commemorated historical events on both sides of the Taiwan Straits [sic], failed to mention the military crackdown on protesters in Beijing on that date in 1989. The China Times Group, the parent of Want Daily, is owned by Tsai Eng-meng [蔡衍明], a businessman with significant commercial interests in mainland China,” the report said.

The report said press freedom in Taiwan had been “hard won” and that journalists were alarmed by a proposal to amend the Children and Youth Welfare Act (兒童及少年福利法).

“Journalists and press freedom advocates raised concerns that the law could be loosely interpreted to limit a broad range of legitimate reporting,” the report said.

It also said that some critics “questioned the fairness” of the broadcast licensing process.

“The National Communications Commission, which is tasked with awarding licenses, came under fire for setting roadblocks in the path of several media ventures,” it said.

“The commission repeatedly denied requests by Next Media, the parent of top-grossing news publications in Hong Kong and Taiwan, to launch a cable TV station. In rejecting the application, the Taiwanese regulatory body cited its doubts that Next TV would ‘fulfill the social responsibility’ expected of a broadcaster, an explanation that commentators noted was subjective and open to broad interpretation,” it said.

Freedom House said disputes continued to plague the Public Television Service, including one in which the president and executive vice president were dismissed.

“Their removals sparked concerns about government interference and the public television’s neutrality,” it said.

Freedom House said the issue of “embedded marketing,” or advertising passing off as news, came to the forefront in December when Dennis Huang (黃哲斌), a veteran reporter at the Chinese-language China Times, resigned in protest over the proliferation of paid -advertising masquerading as news reports in which both big business and government “buy positive coverage.”

“Cyber attacks on at least three foreign journalists based in Taiwan raised new security concerns about reporters whose work relates to mainland China,” the report said.

“The three were among an unknown number of reporters and activists who found in March 2010 that their Yahoo email accounts had been compromised,” it said. “The source of the attack was unclear, but the breaches were similar to attacks on Google’s system that led that company to announce in early 2010 that it would curtail its China operations.”

Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) lawmakers responded to the report by saying the decline in ranking highlighted “serious problems” in interaction between government and the media.

The drop corresponded with President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) taking office in 2008, DPP lawmakers said, adding that the rankings were the direct result of the government’s “highly controversial” media placement practices as well as interference from China.

The drop was “well within expectations,” DPP Legislator Kuan Bi-ling (管碧玲) said. “From many aspects we can see that Taiwan’s media freedoms are undergoing a noticeable change.”

Other issues that likely had an impact were the Public Television System Foundation controversy as well the increasing number of comments from senior government officials attempting to influence what the media can do, DPP lawmakers said.

“We must review [the matter] and reflect [on its implications],” DPP Legislator Twu Shiing-jer (涂醒哲) said. “Ma must return the media to 100 percent freedom to ensure that Taiwan fulfills international standards.”

Government Information Office Minister Philip Yang (楊永明) said the government would “humbly conduct self-criticism” and make improvements in all problem areas to achieve a better performance next year.

“The report shows that the efforts made by the government to safeguard freedom of speech have been highly recognized by the international community. It has been a consistent policy of our nation and the government will continue to adhere to that commitment,” Yang said.

Yang did not dispute that the incidents highlighted in the report had contributed to Taiwan’s drop in rankings, but he said the government had measures in place to address them.

The legislature in January approved the Budget Act (預算法) to ban embedded marketing by government agencies, but that was not taken into consideration in the report, he said.

Taiwan would have had a better ranking if Freedom House had promptly take into account how the government addressed the problem, he said.

Yang denied the government had intervened with the Public Television Service Foundation, saying it respected the laws and independence of the broadcaster.

He would not comment on the issues regarding the amendments to Children and Youth Welfare Act and the NCC’s refusal to issue a broadcast license to Next TV.