A fresh report on Beijing’s suppression of press freedom in various kinds of transnational media outlets suggested that its efforts have evolved to become more “systematic” by not only directly impeding reporting, but also, more effectively, by inducing self-censorship, although they do not always succeed.
The report, which provides a survey of the phenomenon and its evolution, was written by Sarah Cook, a senior research analyst for East Asia at Freedom House.
Some of the efforts Beijing has made to control information are blatant, while some are subtle. In some cases, these efforts are successful, while they encounter significant pushback in others, it said.
“But whatever the outcome of each contestation, the ‘China Factor’ is palpably present, be it at the internationally renowned Washington Post, a local newspaper in Nepal, or a Chinese radio talk show in Los Angeles,” it said.
The study suggests that Beijing has embarked on a systematic effort to “signal to commercial partners and media owners that their operations in China and access to Chinese citizens will be jeopardized if they assist, do business with, or refrain from censoring voices the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] has designated as politically undesirable,” Cook said in her 70-page report.
The mainstream media in Hong Kong and Taiwan are among the six types of transnational media outlets the report focuses on, along with major international media; local outlets in Asia, Africa and Latin America; exiled Chinese outlets providing uncensored news to people in China; and media serving Chinese diaspora communities around the world.
The author said that a number of changes that have occurred in Taiwan’s media environment “parallel developments in Hong Kong during the 1990s” — including “a rise in self-censorship on topics deemed sensitive by Beijing and a collective shift in media coverage towards less critical discourse.”
In the report, Cook used the Want Want China Times Group (旺旺中時集團), the United Daily News and Sanlih E-Television (SETV) as examples.
She mentioned several changes in editorial direction in the Want Want China Times Group after it was acquired in 2008 by Tsai Eng-meng (蔡衍明), chairman of Want Want China Holdings, a snack and beverages company with robust sales in China.
“Reports soon began to emerge of internal top-down pressures to report more favorably about China and its government. Outside observers soon noted a palpable shift towards a more pro-Beijing stance, commercial orientation and focus on entertainment,” Cook quoted media reports as saying in the study.
Like the Want Want China Times Group has in China, leading Chinese-language newspaper the United Daily News has a number of cooperative agreements with Chinese media and established an affiliated office in Beijing in 2005.
A number of controversial cases involving SETV were also mentioned in the report. These included an incident in which its executives reportedly issued a request that a documentary about the Dalai Lama be aired no later than 6am in April 2009 and an incident in May last year involving the resignation of Cheng Hung-yi (鄭弘儀), the host of SETV’s The Talking Show (大話新聞), a popular political debate and commentary program in Hoklo (commonly known as Taiwanese).
Although the station claimed the Cheng resigned due to family reasons, credible sources indicated in media reports that he stepped down following a series of incidents in which SETV executives attempted to restrict discussion of politically sensitive issues and then wanted to change the program’s name, format and focus, the study said.
“Such reports coincide with a shift in SETV’s business strategy to target the mainland market for the sale of its fictional dramas that are popular in Taiwan,” Cook said.
Cooks wrote in the report that the dynamics of Taiwan’s media “closely match the patterns of change in Hong Kong a decade and a half ago.”
They signal an emerging shift in market incentives in Taiwan, in which the financial sustainability and success of a media company are not determined only by its popularity within the nation or its journalistic standards, “but at least in part by its ability to earn revenue in China and cooperate with Chinese government-aligned entities,” the researcher said.
The youth-driven “anti-media monopoly” movement involving Taiwanese journalists, press freedom groups, students and academics that gained momentum last year was referred to in the report, which said that two deals that would have increased the media holdings of Beijing-friendly tycoons were abandoned as a result of the campaign.
Paul Mooney, a veteran China reporter, told Cook in an interview: “The [Chinese] Communist Party [CCP] thinks it’s now powerful enough to intimidate [non-Chinese], from businesspeople to diplomats to academics and journalists, and it is willing to throw its weight around. It has learned that this often works and is willing to do anything to protect its image and stop negative news from being reported.”
The CCP’s transnational media controls affect news outlets around the globe in complex ways, both blatant and subtle.
Nonetheless, “there are forces that have proved successful in countering their impacts,” Cook said.
In the conclusion section of the report, she offered recommendations to governments, media development donors, media owners and media outlets on how to counter Chinese interference.