TAIPEI — Many Taiwanese look up to the United States, and are hyper-sensitive to any American criticism.

So when the U.S. group Freedom House released its recent report on press freedom, it launched a round of hand-wringing. The reason: Freedom House downgraded Taiwan's press freedom ranking, to 43 from 32 last year. Last year it rated Taiwan's media as Asia's "freest" — this year that honor went to Japan. (See the report here .)

More dramatically, Freedom House docked neighboring Hong Kong's press to "partly free" from "free," due to what it described as increased Chinese influence over the territory's media.

Journalists I spoke to were puzzled by some of Freedom House's conclusions about Taiwan.

But on one point, everyone seems to agree: China's influence over Taiwan's media is growing — and if it's not careful, the media here could share Hong Kong's fate.

"If Taiwan's media cannot resist penetration by China, Taiwan will before long go the same way as Hong Kong," Leon Chuang, chairman of the Association of Taiwan Journalists, wrote in a recent editorial.

Freedom House's report calls out the island and two other countries for knuckle-rapping: "Declines in Israel, Italy and Taiwan illustrate that established democracies with traditionally open media are not immune to restricting media freedom."

The poor grades from Freedom House were also particularly stinging here because Taiwan's freewheeling media is key part of the island's political success story: from heavy-handed autocracy to vibrant democracy.

“The decline shows there is room for improvement,” a government spokesman reportedly said, promising to study ways to improve.

Freedom House cited "allegations of increased official pressure on editorial content" and "harassment of reporters trying to cover news events" as reasons for Taiwan's lower score.

It didn't specifically mention growing Chinese influence. But in an e-mail, Freedom House's Asia Researcher Sarah Cook told me, "It’s a dynamic that has appeared in Hong Kong and caused concern, so it’s one of the things we will be trying to watch [in Taiwan] in 2009."

Hong Kong's media moguls are drawing ever closer to Beijing. Wrote the group: "Of particular concern [was] the appointment of 10 owners of Hong Kong media outlets to a mainland Chinese political advisory body." (See more details here.)

Hong Kong's special arrangement upon reverting to Chinese control in 1997 was supposed to preserve the territory's liberties, including press freedoms.

But instead, much of Hong Kong's media has been bought by commercial interests who practice a high degree of self-censorship to stay on Beijing's good side and protect their stakes in mainland markets.

Now, some see the same pattern playing out in Taiwan. The most eyebrow-raising example: The recent purchase of the China Times media group by a Taiwanese rice cracker mogul with massive business interests in China, and who's seen as friendly with Beijing.

"He has a huge stake in the China market, so how could he criticize China?" asked Lo Chi-cheng, a professor at Soochow University and organizer of anti-government rallies. "No way."

(The company, billionaire Tsai Eng-meng's Want Want, did not respond to a request for comment.)

Lo said self-censorship was increasing among Taiwanese media firms with commercial interests in China. And he warned this was playing into Beijing's strategy of defusing criticism and co-opting Taiwanese.

"The news media in Taiwan has become an important tool for Beijing," Lo said. "The Kuomintang [Taiwan's current ruling party] and the Chinese Communist Party are working together to manipulate Taiwan public opinion. That's an important undercurrent that will shape Taiwan's future."

There's no "smoking gun" yet to prove Taiwan's media has begun to bend under Chinese pressure.

But there are plenty of rumors: An angry boss calls up his staff and tells them to cut out criticism of Taiwan's China-friendly president; a talk show host is told not to criticize China because the company is pushing its soap operas in the China market.

Antonio Chiang, a veteran Taiwan journalist and former government official, dismissed Freedom House's charges of harassment and government pressure. "The police are scared of reporters here, not the other way around," he said.

But he also said that growing Chinese influence was an "obvious trend." Chiang himself writes for the Apple Daily, a Hong Kong-owned newspaper known for its pro-democracy, anti-communist stance.

Apple Daily is an example of what happens to media who get on Beijing's bad side: Its reporters are usually barred from the mainland.

Chiang said it was "inevitable" that Taiwan would go the way of Hong Kong, with commercial interests white-washing coverage of China.

But he says the trend doesn't worry him too much.

"It's like climate change — what can you do?" said Chiang. "We have to adjust to the new situation. I think it's a good test for our belief in democracy, and how committed we are to our national identity."

Read more about the press:

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A Czech on a free press?

Zimbabwe's media battles

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