Taiwan's loss of its ranking as the Asian nation with the best news freedom last week sent a ringing warning of the erosion of our democratic freedoms under the restored Chinese Nationalist Party government of President Ma Ying-jeou.
In the annual Freedom of the Press report issued on May 1 by the New York City-based Freedom House, Taiwan dropped from 32nd last year to 43rd among 195 countries and territories and thus fell below Japan for the first time in three years.
Although Taiwan remained in the category of countries rated "free" in press freedom, the demotion in ranking marked the first time since 2003 in which Taiwan failed to mark improvement in its news freedom ratings after five straight years of improvement under the former Democratic Progressive Party government.
Besides relating that "media in Taiwan faced assault and growing government pressure" in 2008, Freedom House's report cited Taiwan specifically as evidence that "established democracies with traditionally open media are not immune to restricting media freedom."
The Freedom House survey added that Taiwan's news freedom climate "deteriorated during the year, due to increased official pressure on editorial content and the harassment of reporters trying to cover news events."
In addition, a similar retreat in Taiwan's ratings for news freedom is likely to come in the upcoming 2009 Press Freedom Index issued midyear by the Paris-based "Reporters without Borders" (RSF), which already downgraded Taiwan from 32nd place among nearly 170 countries in 2007 down to 36th in its rating covering 2008.
Late last year, the RSF, along with the International Federation of Journalists, publicly criticized the KMT government's resurgent interference in the news autonomy of state media such as the Central News Agency and Radio Taiwan International and public media such as the Taiwan Public Television Service network, interference with journalist coverage of last November's visit by PRC envoy Chen Yunlin and related protest demonstrations.
Another important feature of the Freedom House survey was its demotion of Hong Kong from the "Free" to the "Partly Free" category as the territory's rank slipped from 67th to 75th while the authoritarian People's Republic of China remained rated at 181st.
The continued decline in the Freedom House and RSF ratings of the PRC and Hong Kong and Taiwan hints that higher degrees of political or economic integration with the PRC may led to a downward "convergence" in levels of news freedom and freedom of expression, a hypothesis bolstered by the counterpoint improvement of news freedom in Japan and South Korea.
An underlying mechanism behind this correlation is the expanding negative influence on news freedom in Hong Kong, Macao and, increasingly, Taiwan by the PRC through direct media ownership or indirect business and advertising pressure.
With the exception of Apple Daily, most of Hong Kong's media is already either directly owned by PRC interests or indirectly controlled through proxies or friendly overseas Chinese tycoons.
This process well underway in Taiwan as pro-PRC interests already control a sizable chunk of our news media.
For example, the TVBS television networks is 100 percent owned by Hong Kong TVB parent group which is controlled by pro-PRC Hong Kong business interests, while control over the CTI-TV cable network, the China Television (CTV) wireless station and the China Times group of newspapers were recently purchased in a murky transaction by the Want Want Group owned by Tsai Yan-ming, a nominally "Taiwan businessman" whose Want Want China Holdings Limited dwarfs its former Yilan-based parent.
With every page emblazoned with the Want Want corporate symbol, the China Times has now shifted from a moderate but independent "pro-blue" editorial stance to outright pandering of both the PRC regime and the KMT government, as indicated by editorials advising the Taiwan people that "there is no room for hesitation" in embracing "rising China." The evident willingness of the Ma government to allow PRC state-owned companies to enter our sensitive telecommunications industry, as shown by its passive reaction to the 12 percent purchase by the PRC state-owned China Mobile group in the Far EasTone Telecommunications Ltd last week, has now also raised the specter of possible direct investment by PRC state-owned companies into the Taiwan news media itself.
Combined with the KMT government's renewed control over state and public media and the revival of the martial law era habit of "reporting only the good news and leaving out the bad" in such media, these developments are dangerously and silently sharply narrowing down the scope of "freedom of choice" available to most Taiwan residents and even foreign observers of Taiwan and cross-strait affairs for their sources of information critical to our future.
Combined with the continued drive by KMT lawmakers to stack the TPBS board to wrest control from the network's Taiwan-centric management and the KMT camp's drive to ram repressive revisions to the Assembly and Parade Law through the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan's prospects for retaining the reality and reputation as a "free and democratic lighthouse" in Asia are fast dimming.