Taiwan’s media freedom offers a diplomatic opportunity

Taiwan should leverage its status as a top-ranked country in Asia for press freedom to expand its soft power

(Reporters Without Borders map)

According to the 2017 World Press Freedom Index, published by the press freedom campaign group Reporters without Borders, Taiwan is the highest-ranking country in Asia for press freedom.

Their report, which placed Taiwan in 45th place globally – an improvement on last year when it was ranked 51st – considers a range of factors when ranking countries including pluralism, media independence, the quality of the legal framework and the safety of journalists.

While Taiwan is on the rise, the same cannot be said for other countries in the region. Hong Kong has dropped four places to 73rd and China, perhaps unsurprisingly, finished as the 5th worst country in 175th place.

The report comes just a few weeks after Reporters without Borders announced that their first Asian office would be opening in Taipei, a move which was seen as an endorsement of the freedom enjoyed by both the media and political campaign groups here.

Soft diplomacy opportunity

Both the ranking of Taiwan in the World Press Freedom Index and the fact that Reporters without Borders has chosen to be based here should be seen as a diplomatic coup which the government can use to leverage support from other free and democratic nations.

This is known as soft-diplomacy and is a subtle and nuanced diplomatic approach in which smaller nations can make themselves appealing and attractive to either larger global powers or international businesses.

Taiwan should be the regional leader in soft diplomacy as well. It has plenty to offer the world. Taiwan is the only Chinese-speaking democratic nation in the world, its press is unrestricted, and its citizens enjoy total online freedom. Add into this the fact that it has consistently punched above its weight economically and Taiwan has plenty to take to the wider world to counter-weight the obvious diplomatic difficulties that they face.

Sadly, it appears that the Taiwanese government has not always been the best at implementing these more subtle aspects of diplomacy. Some of that is caused by generational factors.

As someone who works in the sphere of public relations, I have often come across company leaders here in Taiwan that simply do not understand the value of investing in effective PR. Their view is that sales brings in the money and PR does not.

This inability to see the bigger picture appears to have been reflected at the governmental level as well. Diplomats have been focused on securing trade or consular agreements and visits by prominent dignitaries. These are tangible things that they can call achievements regardless of how minor and ineffective they may be in reality.

There are signs that things are changing under the current regime. The new southbound policy is much more than an economic rebalancing, but also an attempt to build closer cultural and diplomatic ties with Taiwan’s neighbors to the south and west.

Improvements in relations with India and Japan are concrete signs of this policy-making progress, but the lack of more visible progress, suggests a government willing to play the long and slow game of diplomacy rather than just go in for cheap point-scoring.

This report should be another tool in their arsenal and offer a chance to build closer ties with western allies as well.

At a time when China is clamping down hard on press and online freedoms, Taiwan should be capitalizing on the freedoms it offers to attract businesses who might be looking for somewhere outside the People's Republic to headquarter their East Asian operations. Amazon's recent decision to open an office here is just one such high profile success.

More progress to be made

Of course, none of this should suggest that Taiwan should now rest on its laurels when it comes to press freedom. There are still plenty of media issues that the Taiwanese Government needs to address and successfully doing so could easily push Taiwan into the top 20, or perhaps even higher.

A report in 2014 by Taiwanese scholar Hsu Chien-jung in the Asian Survey academic journal, entitled "China’s influence on Taiwan’s media," highlighted one of the issues that Taiwan media needs to confront.

Many Taiwanese media outlets are owned by Chinese businesses or individuals and this ownership clearly influences the editorial direction these outlets take. This in itself is part of China's own soft diplomatic attempts to win over Taiwanese citizens to their view of the world and to try and control the global media content they are exposed to.

It is no coincidence that Taiwanese news programs are packed full of YouTube video's, celebrity gossip, and dashcam footage rather than actual news and events. This denial of information is far more effective than the pro-Chinese content they regularly run too, in keeping the focus of Taiwanese citizens fixed squarely on China.

It is high time that the National Communications Commission was evolved into the truly independent media oversight body Taiwan deserves. It should seek to expand the number of media and news outlets in Taiwan and effectively regulate media ownership to require transparency and editorial freedom.

Above all, it should take steps to ensure that mainstream media in Taiwan is more than just clickbait, but covers real news and events that inform the people and help broaden their outlook on the world.

Such a media environment would strengthen Taiwan's soft diplomacy hand still further and make Taiwan a more attractive partner for both businesses and governments around the world.