A young democracy developing under the threat of its powerful neighbor, Taiwan ranks 38th in the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index. Among democracies, it also has among the lowest levels of trust in the media. Taiwan's media environment reflects its political landscape: it questions its ties with mainland China and is divided over its concept of the country itself. The result is an extremely polarized society. But some, especially the youth, deviate from the rule.
This article by journalist Alice Hérait is the last in a series exploring the theme: "Taiwan: a truly free media environment?". Here is the previous article in the series.
When talking about the media landscape in Taiwan, Chen Yi-Shan seemed both amused and frustrated. "What annoys me, for example, is when journalists quote internet users and pass them off as reliable sources. If it's for a humorous article I understand, but for an article analyzing the news, it's not serious."
The 50-year-old editor of Commonwealth, the island's first independent magazine, knows what she's talking about. For 10 years, she taught journalism at the National University of Taiwan, the top school in the country. "Few of my students really wanted to become journalists after graduation, but after the Sunflower Student Movement, they realized they could launch their own media."
The 2014 Sunflower Movement saw Taiwan's political landscape take a sharp turn. At the time, The Kuomintang (KMT) administration of then-President Ma Ying-jeou was prepared to force through a free trade agreement with Communist China without it being reviewed by the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), as previously agreed. Students, professors and non-profit organizations took to the streets, protesting and occupying the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan's parliament, until the government agreed to postpone the agreement.
For the protesters, the agreement between Taiwan and the People's Republic of China, which claims sovereignty over the island, risked compromising Taiwan’s independent status from the mainland. As a result of the protest's success, "local" consciousness of Taiwanese identity took on new life.
Many young people remember this moment as the instigator of their political awareness, which might explain the current enthusiasm young people in Taiwan have for independent media.
A few months after the Sunflower "revolution," members of the movement were among the first to be hired by a newly founded news site, The Reporter, in 2015.
"What the founder mainly wanted was a non-profit media," a first in Taiwan, said Chang Shih-Yun, head of social media for The Reporter. The online media, which is a member of the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN), is now an institution among politically-minded youth: it publishes in-depth investigations, news analyses and features — sometimes four or five on the same topic. For example, In 2017 The Reporter was the first Taiwanese media outlet to investigate human trafficking and abuse faced by migrant fishermen in Taiwan. After the report was published, the government promised to improve the situation. "Many legislators read our articles," Shih-Yun noted.
The Reporter now has a newsroom in the heart of Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, with about 40 employees of an average age of 30. In its seven years of existence, this free online media has managed to attract 17,600 "sponsors" — readers who contribute to funding the editorial staff.
"We don't run ads, we don't do product placement. On top of that, we do investigative reporting and are not affiliated with any party. That's what makes our brand and inspires trust from our readers," said Wang Yen-Chen, the outlet's social media editor. "No sponsor is a decision maker; it doesn't matter if they’re a founder or a manager of the media, or how much they invest."
"You could say that The Reporter is certainly the most transparent outlet, because its big sponsors are public," said Ms. Yen*, an experienced freelance journalist. However, she added a caveat: "No media is perfectly independent. Even if you don't get any advertising, it is difficult not to make connections with some politicians, some businessmen."
Yen laments the recent liquidation of the Taiwanese version of the Hong Kong newspaper, the Apple Daily, after its billionaire owner, Jimmy Lai, was arrested by Chinese police in Hong Kong. "The Apple Daily was not afraid of politicians at all. Journalists were not allowed to accept gifts or get friendly with interviewees. The paper was openly critical of the [Taiwanese] government, no matter which party was in power," she said.
The Reporter's ad-free model remains a source of relief in the Taiwanese media landscape, however. "When reading traditional news sites, readers are inundated with ads. They often spend more time reading ads than the news," Yen-Chen said.
Independence vs. stability
Commonwealth, a business magazine with a strong reputation and about 70,000 subscribers, supplements a large part of its income with advertising. Like The Reporter, Commonwealth was created at a time of great political and economic change. Today, it’s almost tradition for investigative journalists to work at the publication at some point during their career.
Founded in 1981, when the island was still living under martial law, Commonwealth, also known by its Chinese name, "Under the Sky," quickly established itself as the first media outlet not affiliated with the then single-party rule of the Kuomintang.
"It was really the beginning of an era," recalled Yi-Shan. "The U.S. had just severed ties with Taiwan, the economic miracle was starting, the need for information was extremely important." Chen confirmed that the newspaper could not have been created had Taiwan not turned to democracy after the death of former president Chiang Kai-shek.
Originating during a time when expressing even the slightest criticism of government was difficult, Commonwealth is often often considered closely in line with the interests of the Kuomintang Party. Chen refutes this accusation. "We are in favor of maintaining stability, which can sometimes bring our ideas closer to the ’blue’ political camp. But our founder, Ms. Diane Ying, covered the 1979 Kaohsiung events for the American press. You could even say that she was rather 'green,'" he said, referring to “blue” supporters of the KMT and “green” supporters of the DPP.
"We are far from the approach of Western countries, which see the media as the fourth estate [and as] a way to monitor the government. Our approach has been one of solutions journalism since the magazine was founded. That's why we already had a good relationship with the government," Chen said.
Even as young people are pushing for a more independent media, between the influx of Chinese disinformation and partisan journalism, weariness toward the media can be explained by poor journalistic practices and institutional reasons alike.
"The current market does not work," said Chen. "But everyone knows that there are good journalists."
*This name has been changed on request of the interviewee to speak candidly on the Taiwanese media landscape.