TAIPEI, Taiwan — Taiwanese news coverage is the best money can buy, says National Taiwan University journalism lecturer Chang Chin-hua.
It’s just too bad for the island’s democratic credentials that she was speaking literally.
Chang and other experts say Chinese government departments have been shaping news coverage here by paying Taiwanese media outlets to run stories that paint China in a sympathetic light. A media watchdog report released last week backs up those claims.
According to The Foundation for the Advancement of Media Excellence (FAME), the island’s five largest daily newspapers printed hundreds of stories that were directly paid for by the Chinese government in the run-up to January’s presidential election.
Ties between Taipei and Beijing have warmed considerably since nationalist President Ma Ying-jeou swept into power in 2008. However, the two sides are technically still at war following their split in 1949. China says it will use force if necessary to bring the island back into the fold.
“China is trying to propagate a united front in Taiwan by promoting the Taiwan-China relationship, while downplaying their human rights problems and lack of freedoms,” said Chang, whose graduate program is widely viewed as the top journalism school in the country.
“This cannot be tolerated. It goes against professionalism and journalism ethics. It cheats the readers, who don’t know what to believe. It destroys the very function of news and readership trust. And it’s also a national security problem,” she said.
More from GlobalPost: Taiwan's nuclear nightmare?
The FAME report says that Chinese government agencies began placing advertorials in Taiwanese print media in 2008, but the number of “embedded” stories — which are published under the guise of objective journalism — more than doubled last year.
Citing national security concerns, Taiwan does not permit Chinese nationals to invest in the island’s media. However, critics claim that Beijing skirts these rules by pumping money through offshore dummy companies, and through Taiwanese businessmen with close ties to mainland authorities.
Tsai Eng-meng, chairman of the food manufacturer Want Want Group, has been singled out by media monitors as one such case. Earlier this month, Tsai came in second on Forbes’ richest Taiwanese list, with a fortune of $6.2 billion USD. He added $1 billion to his net wealth in 2011.
Tsai, who runs many food, real estate, hotel and health businesses in China, recently started purchasing media outlets in Taiwan that champion closer ties between the two sides. He echoes the Beijing line that the Tiananmen massacre in 1989 was overblown by Western media. To date, he has acquired three dailies, including the leading China Times, a TV station and a cable network and has plans to secure to a second cable operator.
Since Tsai purchased The China Times in 2008, a raft of senior journalists and editors have resigned over what they say is the increasing “Sinozation” of the paper.
“The owners influence their writers. If you analyze editorials in these papers then obviously there is a lot more pro-China talk and a lot less about China’s problems. It’s in the [news] pages as well, although it’s more subtle. But it’s there,” Chang said.
More from GlobalPost: Linsanity turned insanity
Freedom House, a US democracy advocate, has noticed the changes too.
In its global press freedom survey, Taiwan fell to 47th place in 2011 from 23rd in 2008. Back then, this diplomatically isolated island about 130 miles off China’s southern coast, was ranked as having the freest press in Asia. Freedom house said it was Asia’s eighth freest media environment in 2011.
"A growing trend of marketing disguised as news reports" took a heavy toll not only on the ranking but media credibility and morale in journalistic circles, the report said. It added: “growing commercial links across the Taiwan Strait raised concerns that media owners and some journalists were whitewashing news about China to protect their financial interests.”
However, some media analysts lay the blame at the doorstep of an industry that has gradually become more fractured along party and societal lines, saying the much-lauded glitter of the country’s free press has been overrated for years.
“Taiwan’s media is a slaughterhouse. They create stories and never apologize for the fallout. Some of them are so prone to distortion that they're more like entertainment businesses,” said George Tsai, vice president of Taiwan Democracy Foundation, an NGO that promotes democratic values in Asia.
Still, China’s forays into Taiwanese media mirrors an aggressive global expansion of what it calls “soft power” — the promotion of the Middle Kingdom through media and the arts.
At last year’s National Congress in Beijing, China announced that the exportation of soft power would become a national interest. Since then, it has spent billions of dollars combatting what it views as unfair bias by Western outlets, with much of that money going towards beefing up its state-run media apparatus in Asia, South America and Africa.
“We are really worried about China’s media push through the rest of developing Asia as well. Obviously a one-party state such as theirs cannot tolerate different points of view,” said Chang.
“They want to use their money to propagate their message. The ‘Free World’ doesn’t seem to understand how serious this could be.”
More from GlobalPost: Burma ready for business?