Despite the sizeable turnout at the demonstrations against mismanagement by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government on Saturday in Taipei, many of the world’s most important newspapers failed to cover the event. Those that did relied for the most part on wire agencies rather than on-site reporters — the result of many years of budget and staff cutbacks at news organizations, which now only maintain reporters in major cities or dispatch them to “important” events.
What worries us, however, is not that leading newspapers do not perceive Taiwan as important enough to have journalists posted here, especially when “important” often implies massive violence as in Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan. What makes us pause is the oftentimes erroneous reporting about Taiwan — willful or accidental — that is being fed to the global community and how uncritically wire copy is treated by news outlets, which allows bias or outright misrepresentation to pass as news.
Leaving behind eight long years of skewed reporting on former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), who for some news agencies was the agent provocateur par excellence, who never failed to “anger” and “provoke” Beijing, or “alienate” Washington with his “extremism” and “separatism,” the post-Chen era promised to bring with it a sea change in reporting on Taiwan and its new president, Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九).
At long last, the elected leader of Taiwan was “charismatic” and “Harvard-educated,” the epitome of “pragmatism” who was seeking to make “peace” with long-time “rival” China. During the presidential election, many agencies threw their supposed journalistic neutrality out the window and unashamedly supported Ma and the KMT by trumpeting the promises of an immediate fix to the economy that the previous government under Chen had “mismanaged.”
What happened after this surge of optimism, however, was that with the Democratic Progressive Party shaken to its core by twin electoral defeats, scandal and financial troubles, global news agencies continued to pound it and call it a “troublemaker.”
It is no surprise, therefore, that some news agencies’ coverage of the rally on Saturday misrepresented the event, with at least two different agencies reporting that tens of thousands of “separatists” were protesting against Ma’s efforts to improve relations with China. Not only was this characterization wrong, but it was dangerous, as it implied that Taiwanese — or at least the “separatists” — are against peace, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
Aside from the perhaps impatient discontent with the KMT administration’s handling of the economy and the failure of Ma to live up to his promises, what the tens of thousands of Taiwanese who rallied on Saturday were protesting was the speed at which he has sought rapprochement with Beijing and the long series of concessions he has made to achieve this, with no apparent sign of reciprocity on China’s part.
It was this — fear that the nation’s sovereignty is being compromised — that the “separatists” opposed. None of those who took to the street, however, would argue that defending Taiwan’s sovereignty cannot be accompanied by improved relations with Beijing. In fact, achieving the former is contingent on the latter, and anyone who says otherwise would be laughed out of town and rightly dubbed an extremist.
Sadly, without such precision and nuance, the rest of the world, which has very little time to devote to issues in far-away Taiwan, will be left with the impression that Taiwanese “separatists” are extremists who oppose peace and who are thus unworthy of their time or help.
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