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 second in a series exploring the theme: "Taiwan: a truly free media environment?" Here is the first.
Taiwanese politicians are on edge as the November 2022 municipal and regional elections approach. Competing narratives between "green" media affiliated with the current presidential administration and "blue" media associated with the opposition use misinformation and polarization to create a media environment where information is consistently viewed through an either pro- or anti-government lens.
In a recent development, Lin Chih-Chien, a candidate of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) for the mayor's office in Taoyuan, one of the largest cities on the island, has been accused by the opposition Kuomintang Party (KMT) of plagiarizing his 2007 master's thesis.
"A whole part of the article is borrowed from a magazine," says the pro-KMT TVBS, one of the most watched channels on the island. Meanwhile, the popular pro-DPP channel Formosa TV criticized the KMT in its headline: "KMT confuses Lin Chih-Chien with Li Meizhen," referring to a KMT city councilor also accused of plagiarizing his thesis.
It is difficult to get to the bottom of the story when the media outlets involved publish information favoring their political allegiances, while omitting inconvenient details. In this particular series of twists and turns, which has occupied Taiwanese media coverage since the beginning of July, the pro-opposition "blue" media emphasizes the inconsistencies and the exasperated words of the politician Lin Chih-Chien, while the pro-government "green" media insists on the dramatic nature of the KMT's accusations.
Low trust in media
Often described as one of the freest societies in Asia, Taiwan is also a democracy where trust in the media is among the lowest. "When Taiwanese people see these channels, they see people defending one side or the other. They don't think it's reliable information," said Will Yang of the Taiwanese non-profit media organization The Reporter, two months before the scandal involving Lin Chih-Chien.
The phenomenon goes beyond TV stations. Apart from the Hong Kong-based Apple Daily, recently shut down in China and whose Taiwanese version is in the process of being bought out, every magazine in the country defends the interests of one of the two political camps, especially when it comes to domestic politics. "In Taiwan, freedom of expression is quite good, but when you look closer, there is manipulation, advertising and the commercial aspect is huge," explained Yang. "The problem is that the media is owned by businessmen."
On this island of 24 million inhabitants, it is often said that if you don’t succeed you become a journalist. It’s an expression that shows the feelings Taiwanese people have for their media landscape. Led primarily by large corporations, Taiwanese media are prone to sensationalism and profit-seeking. This limits their ability to provide unbiased information and generate fruitful public debate.
"On the surface, the media environment is very free, no type of story is forbidden," said Ms. Chen*, a veteran magazine reporter. "But in reality, it's hard to make money from individual contributions. There is so much free information, so much competition. The media relies heavily on sponsors, private investors or support from the local or national government."
There is little encouragement of unbiased news coverage in Taiwan, she continued: "I think it has become very common for the government to reward, through financial support, media outlets that give them favorable coverage."
According to Chen, as most Taiwanese consume news via social media, the government also uses algorithms to highlight their own content. "We see it where I work: when we publish an article that promotes a government policy, it will get more visibility without us doing anything. We think it's the government paying to promote that content. Similarly, content that criticizes the government won't get as much visibility."
Chen further lamented: "Sometimes I feel like the only valid opinion is the one that says 'Taiwan is an independent country and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is great.'"
The DPP, with which the 2016 president-elect Tsai Ing-wen is affiliated, was once persecuted under martial law, when the KMT ruled as a single party. Now in power, the DPP enjoys extreme popularity, especially among younger Taiwanese. The country enjoys popularity abroad thanks in large part to it defiant attitude towards Beijing, which seeks the island's reunification with the mainland, including with threats of military force.
False information originating in China is an issue. At the same time, it has become a recurrent theme pointed to by the Taiwanese government, including members of the presidential majority who have taken the liberty of categorizing certain undeserving information as "fake news." "Disinformation from China exists, but I think the real crisis is from within," Chen said.
"When the government is in a position to declare something is 'fake news,' it opens the door to abuse," Steven Butler, Asia coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists, told Foreign Policy magazine in 2020.
"By drawing attention to Chinese disinformation, the government creates pressure. Any criticism of them has to do with disinformation or external threats," said Chen, who is saddened by the gradual disappearance of articles about China from her magazine. "People don't want to read about China anymore, and in the long run, I don't think it's healthy. We have the right to not like China, but we have to understand it."
As society becomes more polarized, it is increasingly difficult for journalists to provide solid, unbiased information while maintaining a stable income. "In this digital age, suppression no longer needs to take the form of bullets or sticks," said Chen.
*This name has been changed on request of the journalist, who did not wish to reveal her identity fearing that such criticism could impact her career.
Photo Rovin Ferrer via Unsplash.
This article was originally published by our French site. It was translated to English by Sedera Ranaivoarinosy.