Given its location in a region marked by repressive regimes and tight media controls, it might seem to be splitting hairs to parse media freedoms in Taiwan. According to Freedom House’s most recent Freedom of the Press report released earlier this week, Taiwan remained a ‘free’ country, rated well above fellow so-called Asian tigers South Korea, which was rated ‘partly free,’ and Singapore, rated ‘not free.’ It’s noteworthy nevertheless that Taiwan, despite doing better than its neighbors, has slid in the Freedom House rankings during each of Ma Ying-jeou’s three-years as president, falling from 32nd in 2008 to its current position at 48. Due to the relative infancy of media freedom in Taiwan, the roots of which extend to the late 1980s, and the close attention paid to the lack of those rights in China, many of the events the report calls attention to have led to widespread concern around Taiwan.
Freedom House, a U.S.-based democracy advocacy group founded in the 1940s, praised Taiwan’s media environment as “one of the freest in Asia,” but noted “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” as concerns that led to the lower rating. In a review of the report, Commonwealth Magazine noted that Taiwan has been hit with a “negative point” in the economic environment category each year since 2008, indicating growing concern over the effect commercial interests have had on the independence of Taiwanese media. The report cited the December resignation of a senior reporter, Dennis Huang, at the China Times following what he said was an “invasion of regular news pages by advertorials.”
The practice of placing “embedded marketing” or articles paid for by commercial interests without identifying them as advertisements within newspapers has been a concern in Taiwan for years, but Mr. Huang’s resignation catapulted it into the public spotlight. The government amended the Budget Law in January to prohibit the use public funds in paying for advertisements (something it did when promoting the Floral Expo last year), but Freedom House says concerns remain about the buying of news by the mainland Chinese government. The report also pointed to worrying signs that Taiwanese media may be subject to commercially-motivated censorship stemming from the island’s relationship with mainland China, singling out a column that ran in the China Times on June 4, the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. The column listed historically important events on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, but did not bring up the crackdown. As Freedom House notes, China Times is owned by Tsai Eng-meng, a businessman with extensive interests in China.