Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on Taiwan’s presidential candidates and political parties to make a firm, non-partisan commitment to strengthening public media and independent journalism to protect Taiwan from disinformation.
On Sept. 4 last year, a powerful typhoon forced Japan to close Kansai International Airport for two days. Reports circulated that the Chinese embassy took measures to rescue Taiwanese travelers abandoned by their representative office. In Taiwan, the news sparked heavy online criticism of Taiwan’s representative in Osaka, veteran diplomat Su Chii-cherng (蘇啟誠), 61, who regrettably committed suicide 10 days later. The original report, a hoax from China, could not have gone viral without the inadvertent assistance of several Taiwanese media outlets and political commentators that failed their fact-checking duties and made the “fake news” look genuine.
Such disinformation attacks find fertile ground where journalistic standards and ethics are not respected, as is unfortunately too often the case in Taiwan. It is no secret that the Taiwanese media sector is plagued by sensationalism, undeclared advertising and an unhealthy “blue-green” political polarization that hinders journalism in its role as a balancing power, stirring public distrust. It is not that Taiwan lacks competent journalists, but most of them have to work under undue pressure and cannot count on legal protection against requests from their management that would go against journalistic ethics.
Despite having long recognized the media sector’s structural problem, successive governments have not properly addressed it for fear of being accused of authoritarianism. Nonetheless, press freedom should not be misinterpreted as the law of the jungle. Like any other freedom, it requires proper regulations and democratic control to be fully effective and deter abuse. The purpose of a free press is not to let stakeholders freely disseminate content that suits their interests, but to empower citizens through the provision of unbiased information. Left without proper safeguards, the Taiwanese media sector could become a threat to the very democratic institutions it should seek to protect.
Taiwanese public media outlets, whose purpose is not financial profit, could further elevate the quality of the public discourse, but were never provided with sufficient financial resources to achieve this goal. For example, the annual budget of Public Television Service this year hardly represented 2 percent of the resources of its South Korean counterpart KBS and 0.4 percent of those of the BBC and NHK! For similar budgetary reasons and despite their efforts, the Central News Agency and Radio Taiwan International never established a convincing presence in the international Chinese-language news market, giving in without a fight to the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda outlets. In a democracy, the underfunding of the public media incurs a hidden cost that far exceeds the apparent financial saving.
A weak media sector poses a serious threat to Taiwanese national security, as it may allow foreign powers and especially the Chinese regime to influence the election’s outcome. Official responses, however, have been limited to palliative measures that do not tackle the roots of the problem. It is indeed necessary to take action against media that neglect fact checking or intentionally spread harmful contents, but these actions take place long after the damage is done and will not discourage offenders who believe that the benefits of spreading disinformation far outweigh the consequences. Moreover, suggestions to address false narratives by “blocking” or “correcting” erroneous reporting are also inappropriate; in a democracy, the public cannot accept that government, even with the best of intentions, would grant itself the right to decide which information is true or false.
Commendable civil society fact-checking initiatives such as CoFacts and Taiwan FactCheck Center, which have emerged to curb the influence of “fake news” on social media, provide a very useful safety net, but cannot replace the fact-checking efforts made within the media themselves prior to publication. The best solution for Taiwan to protect itself against the virus of disinformation is to strengthen the journalism sector, so that it naturally develops an immunity to the attacks and provides a trustworthy alternative to biased content. This strengthening necessitates measures to effectively guarantee editorial independence and tackle conflicts of interest within the media.
RSF, an international non-governmental organization that defends journalism and freedom of information, urges Taiwan’s presidential candidates and political parties to adopt five measures that would greatly improve the media sector’s resilience to disinformation should they be implemented promptly after the election. When journalists are given sufficient resources to adhere to the highest ethical standards and when editorial departments have the ability to reject commercial and political pressure, public trust in journalism will soon improve and manipulated content will fall on deaf ears.
Five measures to reinforce Taiwan’s media:
First, establish regulations that effectively protect the independence of editorial departments from their employers and boards of directors; oppose all forms of conflicts of interest and push for restructuring where necessary; strengthen the National Communications Commission’s independence, increase its resources and extend its mandate to all media; establish a mechanism allowing journalists to file complaints to the regulator or the judiciary in case of interference; impose full transparency of direct and indirect media ownership.
Second, create in law a “duty of care” that would oblige online platforms to protect both users’ freedom of speech, and safety in regards to hate speech and manipulation; establish regulations against disinformation in line with international standards of freedom of expression; create a process that includes judicial review when government authorities or online platforms deem it appropriate to delete content; open any decision taken in emergency to further judicial review.
Third, upscale the amount of financial resources allocated to public media outlets; reinforce the guarantees of their editorial independence so that they cannot be suspected of political bias; support better cooperation and integration between public media.
Fourth, support the emergence of new media outlets that aim to uphold journalistic ethics, through economic and fiscal incentives following a similar model to start-up development; support independent fact-checking initiatives, as well as institutions, groups and researchers that are dedicated to journalism and the betterment of media; support the media in their attempts to develop self-regulation mechanisms; encourage the media to join independent certification projects such as the Journalism Trust Initiative, a program initiated by RSF that aims to promote and reward media outlets that comply with professional norms and ethics.
Fifth, emphasize critical thinking and media literacy in academic curricula and public education actions; ensure that schoolchildren are being taught from a young age to discern fact from fiction; develop specific campaigns targeting vulnerable social media user categories such as teenagers and the elderly.
As a matter of national security, this reform should be placed above partisan disputes and involve the media themselves as well as representatives of civil society. Taiwan cannot afford to wait any longer to restore trust in the media and effectively protect its institutions against disinformation attacks. Bringing such improvements to the media ecosystem, far from being an authoritarian measure, will actually strengthen Taiwanese democracy by providing citizens with the tools to better understand and participate in public affairs.
Cedric Alviani is Reporters Without Borders’ East Asia bureau head and chairman of the RSF Taiwan Chapter.
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