Almost within one week, the media situation in Taiwan received positive news and worrying news, showing how fragile elementary freedoms can be.
French-based non-governmental organization Reporters Without Borders, or in French, Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF), opened its first Asian bureau in Taipei. The group, which promotes and defends freedom of information, said it chose the spot more than just because of Taiwan’s central location in East Asia, at similar distances from Japan, South Korea, China and Southeast Asia, but also because the island came out at the top of the group’s own annual Press Freedom Index list.
The new office will look at media issues in Taiwan itself, but also in China, Hong Kong, Japan, Mongolia and the two Koreas.
Freedom House, a human rights organization based in the United States, is reportedly also considering setting up shop in Taiwan.
In a separate move, media mogul Jimmy Lai’s (黎智英) Next Digital announced it planned to sell off the Hong Kong and Taiwan versions of the Next Magazine (壹週刊) he founded to another Hong Kong businessman, Kenny Wee (黃浩), who is reportedly offering HK$500 million (NT$1.9 billion).
While Lai has been known as an outspoken critic of China and a supporter of democracy, the question is whether the same could be said of W Brothers Investments chief Wee. There are doubts as to whether will allow the magazines their editorial independence or be more accommodating to pressure from China.
Wee, whose Facebook handle reads KennyBatmanWee and who poses in the page’s profile picture with a yellow Lamborghini convertible and a yellow Hummer, insisted in an interview with Hong Kong media that there was no Chinese money involved in the deal.
He said he made HK$400 million (NT$1.56 billion) from the sale of Hong Kong’s Metro Daily earlier this month and was using only his own money to make the offer for the Next Magazine package, which also includes four other publications in the former British territory.
However, Hong Kong media reports said a union spokesman described Wee as “a frequent visitor to Government House,” triggering doubts about the future of the publication’s editorial independence and about the continuation of its critical stance toward China and the political establishment in general.
In any event, because Taiwan’s version of Next Magazine is involved, the government of Taiwan will have a say in the matter.
Chinese investment in the Taiwanese media is completely banned, so if the Ministry of Economic Affairs finds out that Wee is using funding from China to finance his takeover bid, the deal will be off.
The interesting parallel between the RSF opening and the Next Magazine plan is the role of Hong Kong and Taiwan.
According to media interviews, the French-based press freedom organization had originally considered Hong Kong as the obvious base for its Asian operations, but later changed its mind due to the lack of legal certainty and the possibility that its staff would be put under surveillance.
After 20 years of semi-autonomy under China’s “One Country, Two Systems” formula, media freedom has already lost ground while 30 years since the abolition of Martial Law, Taiwan has made significant progress, becoming a beacon for freedom, democracy and human rights in a region filled with authoritarian regimes of various hues.
The cases of the RSF’s first Asian office and the planned takeover of Next Magazine show how roles can be exchanged quickly, and how vigilance is necessary to make sure that advances in democracy do not slip back.