Freedom of the Press
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Press Freedom Score (0 = best, 100 = worst)
Legal Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Political Environment(0 = best, 40 = worst)
Economic Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Taiwan’s media environment is one of the freest in Asia, with a vigorous and diverse press that reports aggressively on government policies and alleged official wrongdoing. Nevertheless, actions by media owners, a revival of “embedded marketing” amid economic difficulties, and government influence over the editorial content of publicly owned outlets all posed threats to media independence during 2009.
The constitution provides for freedoms of speech and of the press, and the government and independent courts generally respect these rights in practice. However, several incidents during the year raised concerns over the use of legal action by media owners to silence critics. In June, owners of the Want Want China Times Group sent legal notifications to journalists and press freedom advocacy organizations, threatening to file defamation suits for their criticism of the company’s actions. It had faced a public outcry over advertisements in the China Times that denounced the National Communications Commission (NCC) and its decision to impose restrictions related to cross-ownership and Want Want’s 2008 purchase of the China Times Group. In a separate case in August, after two employees from ERA TV revealed on their private blogs that the station had delayed relaying calls from victims of Typhoon Morakot to the authorities, the station dismissed the pair and sued them for defamation; the suit was pending at year’s end. While publications from mainland China are subject to screening and potential import bans by the Government Information Office (GIO), numerous materials from China were available in stores as well as on the internet in 2009.
Media coverage is often critical of the government, and news outlets were especially exacting on the official response to Typhoon Morakot in 2009, ultimately contributing to the replacement of the prime minister. Nevertheless, political polarization poses a challenge to press freedom, with most major news outlets seen as sympathetic to one of the two main parties. Media observers have also raised concerns over a rise in sensationalism and a potential loss of quality, including a trend toward premature “trial by media” in cases of alleged corruption that have yet to work their way through the courts.
Given that most Taiwanese can access about 100 cable television stations, the state’s influence on the media sector is minimal. Print media are completely independent, and following reforms in recent years, broadcast media are no longer subject to GIO licensing and programming reviews. Nonetheless, observers expressed concern that personnel changes and reform measures initiated by the government or its allies in the legislature were aimed at influencing the editorial content of nonpartisan public media outlets. Local media monitoring groups and international observers noted in 2009 that criticism of the government in coverage by the Central News Agency (CNA) appeared to be markedly toned down since the end of 2008, when the former spokesperson for President Ma Ying-jeou’s electoral campaign was appointed as the agency’s deputy president and CNA staff reported receiving editorial directives to alter certain content. In a positive development, proposed legislation requiring item-by-item government approval of Public Television Service (PTS) programming was dropped in mid-2009 after public protests, and the outlet’s budget was also unfrozen. However, local press freedom advocates and the Control Yuan watchdog entity criticized subsequent government measures to expand the PTS board and prematurely end the contracts of the broadcaster’s management.
Media owners have exercised influence over the editorial content of their outlets. After Want Want owner Tsai Eng-Meng, a businessman with significant commercial interests in mainland China, purchased the China Times Group in November 2008, several incidents pointed to increased editorial pressure to soften criticism of the Ma administration and Beijing. This also raised concerns over the potential direct or indirect influence of the Chinese government on free expression in Taiwan. Anecdotal evidence suggested a broader increase in self-censorship on topics deemed sensitive to Beijing, particularly the treatment of minorities such as Tibetans, Uighur Muslims, and Falun Gong practitioners. Between September 17 and October 1, the signal of the Falun Gong–affiliated New Tang Dynasty Television network encountered interference, and the station was entirely unavailable in Taiwan on October 1. The problem coincided with the Chinese Communist Party’s celebration of its 60th year in power, raising suspicions that the signal—which is accessible to some mainland viewers in addition to Taiwanese—had been deliberately interrupted to limit access to critical news coverage during the anniversary. At year’s end, the NCC was investigating the matter.
Physical violence against journalists is rare, and both local and foreign reporters are generally able to cover the news freely. There were no reports during the year of assaults or official harassment of journalists. In a positive development, Taiwanese journalists were granted accreditation in May to cover the World Health Assembly in Geneva for the first time since 2004, as a Taiwanese delegation was allowed to attend the event with observer status. However, the International Federation of Journalists criticized the United Nations’ decision not to give the Taiwanese journalists access to press facilities.
Taiwan has over 360 privately owned newspapers and numerous radio stations. Satellite television is broadcast on 143 channels. Legislation approved in 2003 barred the government and political party officials from holding positions in broadcast media companies, and required government entities and political parties to divest themselves of all broadcasting assets. Fierce competition among newspapers, competition with new sources of information such as cable television and the internet, and rising production costs have contributed to a decline in the newspaper industry. Between 2005 and 2008, eight newspapers were forced to shut down, leaving four with large circulations: the Liberty Times,the Apple Daily,the United Daily News,and the China Times. This has increased newspapers’ vulnerability to the political and commercial interests of owners and advertisers, which may affect their editorial line. The financial challenges faced by both the newspaper and television industries were exacerbated in 2009 as the global economic downturn hit Taiwan. In this context, there was a reported revival of “embedded marketing,” in which advertisers pay to have products or policies promoted in what appear to be ordinary news stories. According to the U.S. State Department, observers reported “a significant increase in paid placements in the local print and electronic media by the authorities and private businesses as media revenues dropped.”The government refrains from restricting the internet, which is accessed by nearly 66 percent of the population. However, several nongovernmental organizations claim that law enforcement agencies monitor chat-room and bulletin-board exchanges among adults in order to identify and prosecute individuals who post sexually suggestive messages. In 2009, the Constitutional Court ruled in favor of law enforcement agencies on this matter, arguing that the public benefits of limiting the space for sexual victimization of children outweighed the potential restrictions on free speech.